Annie Besant (October 1, 1847- September 20, 1933), English social reformer, author (The Political Status of Women,1874; Marriage, As It Was, As It Is, And As It Should Be: A Plea For Reform, 1878; The Law Of Population, 1877) and worldwide head of the Theosophy movement.
Born Annie Wood in Clapham, London, her childhood was unhappy after her father's death when she was five. Besant was educated by Ellen Marryat, sister of the noted writer of sea adventures, Frederick Marryat. Miss Marryat was a strict Calvinist, but she saw to it that Annie's education was not too narrow and included travel in Europe. In 1867, Annie Wood married a vicar, Frank Besant, resulting in the birth of two children, but her increasingly irreligious views – when she refused to attend communion, Frank ordered her to leave the family home – led to a legal separation in 1873, with her husband retaining custody of their son (and she later lost custody of their daughter because of her progressive views). At this point, Annie Besant completely rejected Christianity and in 1874 joined the Secular Society.
She studied science at university, something considered very unfeminine at the time, but did not ever take her degree, because there “was one examiner in the University who told her beforehand that however brilliantly she might do the papers which were set, he would not pass her, because he had a strong antipathy toward her atheism and to certain of her activities for the masses, which he considered immoral” (Nethercot, Arthur H, The First Five Lives of Annie Besant, p. 186).
Advocate of contraception
Annie Besant was a member of the National Secular Society, which preached 'free thought' and of the Fabian Society, the noted socialist organisation whose members included George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. In the 1870s, Besant edited, with National Secular Society founder Charles Bradlaugh, the weekly National Reformer, which advocated such advanced ideas as trade unions, national education, women's right to vote, and contraception.
In 1877 Besant and Bradlaugh were convicted of selling birth control pamphlets in the slums of London; in court they argued that “we think it more moral to prevent conception of children than, after they are born, to murder them by want of food, air and clothing.” They were sentenced to six months imprisonment for publishing “an obscene libel”, but the verdict was overturned on appeal and the publicity helped to liberalise public attitudes. However, her activism in this case cost Annie custody of her daughter, Mabel, whose custody was awarded to Frank Besant on his application.
Besant soon wrote and published her own book advocating birth control, The Law of Population. That a woman would advocate birth-control received wide-publicity, with newspapers such as The Times of London accusing Besant of writing “an indecent, lewd, filthy, bawdy and obscene book”.
The Bryant & May ‘Matchgirls Strike’
After joining the Social Democratic Federation, Annie started her own campaigning newspaper, The Link. On June 23, 1888, Besant wrote an article in The Link, entitled ‘White Slavery in London’, the consequence of which was a three-week strike among the employees of the Bryant & May match company, whose female workers worked fourteen hours a day for a wage of less than five shillings a week ...
Read the story of Annie Besant: Social activist who lit a match, newly uploaded at the Scriptorium.