Kathrine McAllister Stewart was born at Manchester, England, on 13 May 1895, the eldest of three children of Andrew Stewart, a commercial traveller, and his wife, Jane Vallance Davidson. When Rena, as she was known, was five years old, the family moved to Birmingham, where she attended the King Edward VI grammar and high schools. She then enrolled at the University of Glasgow, graduating MA in geography, philosophy and mathematics. She continued her studies at the University of Cambridge, where she received a diploma in teaching.
Rena Stewart began teaching at her former grammar school, replacing a male teacher fighting in the First World War. She was offered a lecturership in geography at Girton College, Cambridge, but decided to travel overseas first, taking up a position at the Bishop Strachan School, Toronto, Canada, before going to New Zealand in 1924 to teach at New Plymouth Girls’ High School. There she introduced a new method of teaching geography by studying the comparative agricultural, industrial and economic importance of regions, rather than individual countries.
Her plans to take up the Cambridge job were abandoned when she met William Pool Bell while on holiday at Tauranga in 1924–25. The following year William’s father died and he took over the running of the family dairy farm near Tauranga. The couple were married at Auckland on 5 May 1928, and Rena joined William on the farm; they were to have a son and a daughter. In 1935 Rena became very ill and her sister, Marie Stewart (later a well-known poultry expert), moved to Tauranga from Massey Agricultural College to help her. William died suddenly in 1943, leaving Rena to run the farm.
Her lifelong interest in politics had begun in England, where, despite opposition from her family, she was an active suffragette, frequently rising before dawn to cycle into the city clad in a purple tweed suit and green hat to chalk ‘Votes for Women’ on any conspicuous wall. (In 1918 she wrote ‘The position of women in industry’.) Although New Zealand women had been able to vote since 1893, she was appalled by their general apathy. The Women’s Section of the New Zealand National Party was formed at Tauranga in 1936 with Bell as chairman, a position she held for at least 15 years. During this period she was responsible for establishing 12 women’s sections within the party’s South Auckland (later Waikato) Division. A dominion councillor for five years (1957–62), she was women’s vice president in 1957–58 and vice chairman in 1960. She took steps to make sure her opinions were considered by politicians, telephoning the local MP, George Walsh, and even Prime Minister Keith Holyoake to discuss her views.
Although she was never to teach again, Bell’s interest in education never waned. She was elected to the committee of management of Tauranga College in 1949, and in 1954, on the formation of the school’s board of governors, she was appointed vice chairman. One of the first tasks for the board was to oversee the separation in 1958 of the co-educational school into the Tauranga Boys’ College and Tauranga Girls’ College. She was elected chairman of the board in 1960, a position she held for 10 years.
When the University of Waikato opened in 1964, Bell was appointed to its council as the Bay of Plenty representative; she was the only woman councillor. She was president of the Tauranga branch of the New Zealand Federation of University Women in 1955–56. Her services to education were recognised in 1966 when she was made an MBE.
Much of Rena Bell’s success in her public and private roles was due to her ability to get on well with a wide variety of people. Outside of her busy public life she relaxed by reading. She died at Tauranga on 7 October 1970, survived by her two children. At a memorial service at Tauranga Girls’ College her portrait was hung in the foyer, a small grove of trees was planted in the school grounds and a plaque was unveiled, tributes to a woman who was prominent as a leader in education and politics for over 40 years.