Elizabeth Downe Norris Papers
Elizabeth Downe was born on April 25, 1914 in White Plains, New York, to Albro Farwell and Alice Morse Downe. The family lived in White Plains, New York; Gardner, Massachusetts; and New Haven, Connecticut, where her father worked as a salesman for the American Radiator Company. After graduation from New Haven High School, Downe attended Smith College where she majored in English and religious studies.
After earning her A.B. in 1936, Downe returned home and enrolled in Yale Divinity School. Though financial problems delayed completion of the degree, she received a B.D. in religious education in 1939. (YDS would not award masters degrees to women at that time.) Interested in a career in "religious direction and education," during her Yale years Downe served as Director of the Daily Vacation Bible Schools run by the New Hampshire Council of Congregational Churches in the summer of 1937, and as assistant to the Girl Reserve Secretary of the New Haven YWCA (October 1938-June 1939).
After finishing at Yale, she attended the YWCA's intensive one month Training Institute for Professional Workers at Oberlin College in the summer of 1939. In September of that year Downe took a job as Teen-age Director at the YWCA in Passaic, New Jersey. She returned to the New Haven YWCA in November 1940 as Assistant Residence Director.
In August 1942 she married Roy Edwin Norris and the couple moved to Brooklyn, New York. Roy Norris was then a student at Columbia University and Elizabeth started work as a teller in the Brooklyn Trust Company in December 1942. Unhappy with the work, ("[I] have not found it at all stimulating"), she attempted to find jobs in "social group work" and ended up resigning from the bank in July of 1944.
Elizabeth gave birth to her only child, a son, Donald Edwin Norris, on December 30, 1944.
When she was ready to return to work, she found that her chosen profession required irregular hours, including "a great deal of evening work" that would "now be impossible because of my three year old child." In August of 1948, she began working for the YWCA of the City of New York Central Branch, doing intake interviewing and some public relations. She also did some freelance "membership interpretation" writing for the YWCA of the U.S.A.
Though they remained lifelong friends, beginning in September of 1950 Elizabeth and her husband Roy lived apart, but they did not complete a legal separation agreement until December 1974.
In 1953 Elizabeth enrolled in Columbia University School of Library Science and went to work at the Queensboro Public Library in Jamaica, New York. After earning an M.L.S. in 1955, she worked as Religious Education Librarian at the Union Theological Seminary Library (1955-57) and Librarian at the National Conference of Christians and Jews (1957-63) before returning to the YWCA in June of 1963 as Librarian for the National Association.
Through the many years Norris worked for the National Association, the Library was closely associated with staff doing research, public relations, and maintaining the central filing system. Part of Norris's duties included cataloging and care of a large collection of YWCA publications. Because of her interest and experience with "interpretation" of the Association, Norris regularly wrote on historical and research topics for the YWCA magazine and for brochures and training materials.
At least as early as the 1970s, Norris began to collect memorabilia and ephemera related to women's history, sewing, and a variety of other topics. She became active in postcard clubs and contributed several articles to Postcard Collector magazine. Norris sold much of her collection after the year 2000.
Spurred by the U.S. Bicentennial and the growing interest in women's history, the YWCA of the U.S.A. embarked on an Archives Project in 1976. Elizabeth Norris was appointed Director of the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded project and given responsibility for establishing a permanent "study center" within the Library and providing ongoing scholarly access to the historical records of the Association once the grant-funded Project Archivists had completed surveys and inventories of the records. Following completion of the two-year project late in 1978, "YWCA Historian" was added to Elizabeth Norris's position title to reflect her new role.
Norris developed a regular feature in the YWCA Interchange, called "Archives Box" where she presented historical pieces on a variety of topics. She also produced a number of YWCA history handouts for use in staff and volunteer training. Norris and historian Nancy Marie Robertson collaborated on a chapter about sources and strategies for doing historical research on the YWCA for the book Men and Women Adrift: The YMCA and the YWCA in the City (1997).
Roy Norris died in September 1984 and Elizabeth and Roy's son Donald died October 16th, 1994.
Under severe budget constraints, the YWCA of the USA closed its Archives in September 1992. As part of overall fund-raising effort and in celebration of the 135th anniversary of the founding of the first YWCA in the U.S., the National Association obtained grants to mount an exhibit of historical materials selected from the Archives and contributed by Community Associations. Norris served as Project Manager for this exhibition and accompanying catalogue, "Women First for 135 Years, 1855-1993." With special funding, Elizabeth Norris continued as Librarian and YWCA Historian half-time, later Librarian/Archivist until 1999 as her health permitted.
Elizabeth Norris died on December 24, 2003.