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Story: Cowie, Bessie Lee

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Cowie, Bessie Lee


Temperance campaigner, social reformer, lecturer, writer

This biography, written by Sarah Dalton, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Betsy Vickery (better known as Bessie) was born on 10 June 1860 at Daylesford, Victoria, Australia, the daughter of Susan Emma Maunder (née Dungey) and her husband, Henry Vickery, a butcher. When Bessie was eight her mother died and she and her six siblings were separated and sent to live with relatives. For a year she lived in Melbourne with her well-meaning but apparently alcoholic aunt and uncle, whose loving care was interspersed with drink-induced abuse – both physical and verbal. Once the situation became known to her father, Bessie was sent to another uncle and his new wife at a remote mining settlement near Enoch's Point, north-east of Melbourne. These guardians were austere but highly principled and taught her that the cardinal rules of a Christian life were to be 'diligent' and to 'keep thyself pure'. Bessie had little formal education and no companions of her own age, but she was an avid reader of the Bible and by the time she was a teenager knew she had been saved.

On 14 March 1880, at St Peter's Church, Melbourne, Bessie married Harrison Lee, a refined young man who shared her Christian principles. His occupation was given as white leather dresser at the time of the marriage, but he seems to have been employed, off and on, as a railway worker.

As a young woman Bessie was torn between conventional ideas of a woman's place and an intense desire to help and educate others. Soon her sense of public duty was the stronger. In spite of chronic back pain she started working as a Sunday school teacher in Footscray, Melbourne, then began speaking to groups of women and children. She soon took to preaching from the pulpit – a bold step, for she was often nervous and conscious of her lack of education. Eventually she was employed as a district visitor for the Anglican church.

Converted to the temperance cause, she joined the Richmond branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Union of Australia in 1887 and was elected president. At the first national convention she was appointed editor of the WCTU page in the Alliance Record, colonial superintendent of literature, and one of the public speakers for the union. In the late 1880s she travelled through Victoria holding meetings on behalf of the WCTU. Around 1890 she resigned for a time, but continued her temperance work, eventually becoming a lecturer and organiser for the Victorian Alliance for the Suppression of the Liquor Traffic.

As well as promoting temperance as a solution to social problems, Bessie Lee saw sexual purity within marriage as a way to improve the lives of women and children. In 1890 she published a booklet, Marriage and heredity, bringing on herself a storm of controversy. She attacked the supposed 'right' of husbands to demand sex from their wives, and instead advocated marital sex only for procreation, and voluntary motherhood. In her view every woman should have 'sole right over her body', and 'the woman who works and suffers for her children should have the right to say whether she will have little ones or no'. Unlike some other feminists, however, she maintained that sexual abstinence, rather than contraceptive methods, should be the means to this end. Bessie Lee herself remained childless.

She continued her work as a lecturer and from 1896 began to travel abroad as a temperance organiser and missionary. She spent most of 1897 in England, working with Lady Isabella Caroline Somerset, president of the World's Woman's Christian Temperance Union, and other temperance campaigners. In 1899 at the invitation of the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Women's Christian Temperance Union, she made her first visit to New Zealand and played a key role in a three-week Gospel Temperance Mission organised by the branch. Subsequently she spent nearly eight months on a highly successful lecture tour of the country. She returned to New Zealand in 1902 and 1905, assisting the WCTU and the New Zealand Alliance with local option campaigns before each general election. In between these visits she travelled around Australia and to England and the United States.

Following the death of her husband in early 1908, Bessie Lee again toured New Zealand and renewed her acquaintance with an admirer, a retired Southland farmer, Andrew Cowie. She accepted his proposal of marriage when he stated, 'I do not wish you to be a farmer's wife. I want to be a missionary's husband'. They were married at Winton on 17 November 1908 and settled at Invercargill. True to his word, Cowie played a supportive role. He gave financial assistance to his wife's causes, and travelled with her wherever in the world her campaigns took her. By 1911 she was a world missionary of the WCTU, one of only a few women to achieve this position. That year she was a speaker at the WCTU's first Dominion Māori Convention, held at Pakipaki, Hawke's Bay.

In New Zealand Bessie Lee Cowie (or Bessie Harrison Lee Cowie as she was sometimes known) soon became involved in prison reform and in socialist initiatives. She supported the formation of housewives' unions and in 1912 was a foundation member of the United Labour Party of New Zealand. Representing women workers, she served on the first dominion executive.

After the outbreak of the First World War, the Cowies moved to Dunedin, and in 1920 to Auckland. Bessie Lee Cowie became a stalwart of the WCTU there, organising and speaking at meetings. She was president of the Auckland Band of Hope, a temperance organisation for children, and around 1925 ran a mission to alcoholic men in Newton. One woman who heard her speak at a meeting of the Auckland Sunday School Union in 1923 later recalled that she was 'the finest woman speaker I had ever heard'. Humorous and logical, adept at dealing with hecklers, Bessie Lee Cowie attracted large crowds wherever she preached. She also wrote prolifically, producing numerous poems, articles and tracts.

Andrew Cowie died in 1928, and in June 1930, on medical advice, Bessie moved to Honolulu, where she continued to lecture and write. During the Second World War women were advised to leave Hawaii, so, accompanied by her old friends Matilda and Susannah Pyle, she went to live in California. There she pursued her temperance work, picketing bars with her supporters. She completed her final booklet, an account of her campaigns entitled From nine to ninety, shortly before her death at Pasadena on 18 April 1950.

How to cite this page:

Sarah Dalton. 'Cowie, Bessie Lee', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3c37/cowie-bessie-lee (accessed 24 April 2024)