Bessie Harrison Lee and the theatrics of protest

Jennifer Caligari examines how temperance and suffrage activist Bessie Harrison Lee used the theatrics of protest to promote her agenda. This post is based on an article that appears in the 2020 issue of Lilith, available now on open access here.

When I saw a photo of Bessie Harrison Lee on the front cover of a British woman’s magazine dated 1896 I was in utter admiration for the significance of this achievement. It arrived to me by email from England by a kind volunteer who had been given the task of sorting through British feminist magazines and cataloguing them. This nineteenth-century woman, who was self-educated and a survivor of childhood of trauma, was granted a whole page that incorporated her 1896 tour of England and voluntary work with Lady Henry Somerset. This provided me with the impetus to further consider Lee’s talent for using her body and dress in performative ways to convey her passion for living a temperance lifestyle. This photo, along with other sources such as photographs and newspaper commentary, kept leading me to question how a woman from a mining town, Daylesford Victoria, could end up on the public speaking circuit, not just in Australia but overseas. In fact, she continued to surprise me with her willingness and ability to travel to places such as Sri Lanka, India and Africa.

Lee behind a writing desk showcasing gifts from her travels. B. Lee, Marriage, Heredity and the Social Evil, H.J. Osborn, National Temperance Publication Depot, 29 Patterson Row, EC, 1903.

As a young bride in Melbourne, Lee was shocked by the poverty and alcohol fuelled domestic violence that she witnessed in the working class suburbs of Richmond and Footscray. Joining the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) provided the opportunity for Lee, through her talent for public speaking, to participate in WCTU speaking circuit in rural Victoria. Lee used her life’s narrative, through her public presentations to prove that a girl, without education, money or influence could lead a sanctified life.

The first time I had ever used Skype was to converse with a woman who had met Lee as a young girl. So impressed with her encounter with Lee, who was promoting young children to sign a pledge card to never drink alcohol, she made a commitment to refrain from alcoholic beverages for the rest of her life. Through this encounter and studying the various mediums and environments that Lee performed in, it became clear that Lee was able to read her crowd and provide both an entertaining spectacle and serious message. Her indefatigable love of being amongst different people, young children or even a hostile crowd of regular patrons at a pub, distinguished her from other contemporary women activists who withdrew from public life in their senior years.

Lee protesting in Pasadena, California, Life Magazine, 19 May 1947.

Just when I thought Bessie would settle down after reaching the age of ninety, I received yet another collection of newspaper clippings from Dan the library attendant at the City of Pasadena, California. Here were clippings of Lee protesting at Pasadena bars as a leader of other senior WCTU women. Wearing placards around their necks, the women were featured in the papers and the front page of Time Magazine objecting to the lighting in the interior of bars. They considered the drinking environment to be too dark and difficult for patrons to determine whether it was day or night. The women argued that if patrons were visible from the street they would be shamed into not being there and returning to their families. Brighter lighting would also make it easier to see if any underage drinking was taking place.

During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Lee, behind the veil of respectability, took risks visiting places in insalubrious or hostile places and performed confidently to crowds. She promoted radical ideas regarding the very destructive drinking culture in a joyous celebratory format. Lee’s achievements will continue to be revealed through the many archives still waiting to be catalogued, uncovered and sent in an envelope to Bacchus Marsh, my place of residence.

Jenny Caligari is an experienced secondary school teacher of twenty-four years and a graduate of a PhD in History from Deakin University, Australia. Her research focuses on the life of Bessie Harrison Lee, Daylesford born Woman’s Christian Temperance Union campaigner, famous for her public oratory. Bessie’s life is used as a lens to explore women’s social activism, lecturing, and writing and travel experiences. Jenny lives in Bacchus Marsh with her husband, two children and a cat.

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