Partner Beatrice “Bea” Arthur, buried together
Waikanae Cemetery, 30 Ngarara Rd, Waikanae 5036, New Zealand
Betty "Bette" Armstrong (April 16, 1909 – November 15, 2000) and Beatrice “Bea” Arthur lived in a comm itted lesbian relationship for 57 years, supporting themselves through professional q ualifications as a stenographer and nurse, respectively, making lesbianism the organisi ng principle of their pre-1970 lives through careful strategies of discretion.
Betty was born on April 16, 1909, an only child in a middle-class Petone family. Her father was a dentist, and her mother came from a wealthy Blenheim family. Bette attended Queen Margaret College in Wellington, a private school. After her parents divorced when she was fifteen, Betty moved with her mother to Blenheim, boarding at Nelson Girls' College for a year. Bea explained that Betty “wasn’t boarding school material”, and that she left school to work in a Blenheim legal office, and live at home, before she and her mother returned to Wellington. She attended Gilbey’s Business College, qualifying as a stenographer at twenty, and her father then found her a position with the Reserve Bank.
Bea and Bette met in December 1943, when Bette was admitted to Wellington Hospital as a patient, with sciatica, which Bea thought was due to Bette’s war work with the Red Cross. Bea was her nurse. They led very private lives during the entire pre-1970 period, until feeling compelled to speak out during the 1985-1986 Homosexual Law Reform campaign. Betty and Bea were recognised in their eighties by lesbian and gay com munities in Auckland and Wellington as important elders and forerunners.
In all, Betty and Bea lived with Bette’s mother for ten years, though they parted for some months during that time, when Bea became attracted to another nurse. After this, the couple decided they would live independently, and bought a gorse-covered hilly section in Khandallah. They cleared the section themselves, established a large garden, and had a house built where they lived for nearly fifty years. They shared a bedroom, but now had two beds, as they were concerned about “what people might say” .
After twenty years, the couple bought another secti on at Waikanae, building a modest weekend cottage and developing another garden. Both women retired during the early 1970s, Bea from her position as Sister in Charge of Outpatients at Wellington Hospital, and Bette from office work.
Bette died in 2000 aged ninety-one, and Bea within two years of Betty in 20 02, aged eighty-six. They are buried together at Waikanae Cemetery.