Woman Lee, Betsy (Bessie) Harrison (1860 - 1950)

Daylesford, Victoria, Australia
California, United States of America
Suffragist, Temperance activist and Writer

Written by Patricia Grimshaw, The University of Melbourne

Bessie Harrison Lee was a speaker for Victorian temperance bodies and women's suffrage, and later in New Zealand a public supporter of better conditions for working-class women. During her first marriage she utilised as her middle name her husband's first name. She was born in 1860 in Daylesford, Victoria, the daughter of a butcher; her mother died when she was young. With little formal schooling, various subsequent unhappy experiences in relatives' families instilled in her an intense dislike of the abuses of alcohol. At the age of 19 years she married Harrison (Harry) Lee, a railway worker, and moved with her husband to Richmond in inner city Melbourne. After hearing talks delivered by overseas temperance lecturers she became an active prohibitionist. She helped to pioneer the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in Victoria (WCTU) in 1887 but because of her idiosyncratic beliefs about fertility control found herself marginal in that organisation. She left the executive of the WCTU to accept the sponsorship of the powerful Victorian Alliance for the Suppression of the Liquor Traffic in the years from 1890 to 1896, and fought district local option battles; she wrote copiously for daily newspapers and the temperance press. She also wrote popular pieces for papers promoting the women's vote, some of which were republished as pamphlets for distribution. The year 1896 saw the first of her numerous trips abroad, principally to Britain, New Zealand and the United States of America. After her husband died, she remarried in 1908 a New Zealand farmer and thereafter lived in New Zealand, where she became an advocate for women in early factories. In 1912 she became a foundation member of the United Labour Party, representing women workers. Her written works include Marriage and Heredity (Melbourne, 1893), One of Australia's Daughters: an Autobiography (London, 1906) and One of God's Lamplighters: Incidents in my Life Work (London, 1902). She died in California in 1950, a temperance activist to the end.

Published Resources

Book Sections

  • Grimshaw, Patricia, 'Bessie Harrison Lee and the Fight for Birth Control', in Marilyn Lake and Kelly Farley (eds), Double Time: Women in Victoria, 150 Years, Penguin Books, Melbourne, Victoria, 1985, pp. 139 - 147. Details

Online Resources

See also