A small woman of enormous energy, one of the first to take a stand in support of birth control in Britain, Annie Besant was an indefatigable propagandist for the causes that she so fervently adopted during an extremely active life. These ranged from freethinking, socialism, trade unionism, and the rights of working and married women to the care of the homeless and deprived. In her later years, she espoused Theosophy and the nationalist cause in India, although her work on the subcontinent would eventually languish in the shadow of Mahatma Gandhi. Besant insisted that her primary objective in all things had been to follow the truth, and she proved a fine orator, admired by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who considered her without peer among women public speakers in Britain. So too did fellow social reformer Beatrice Webb, who in 1887 described Besant as “the only woman I have ever known who… had the gift of public persuasion” (Taylor 1992, 35). Her life falls into two clear phases, the first one of socialist activism in England to 1885, and the second her involvement in Theosophy, which took her to India, where she would remain until her death.
Besant’s family were of Irish ancestry, and she grew up with an intensely devout religious faith. The family was forced to live in straitened circumstances after her father’s death when she was five. Denied the kind of education her brothers received, she was sent away to Dorset to be educated at the school of the progressive educator and friend of the family Ellen Marryatt until she was sixteen. After spending time abroad, Besant found herself cornered into accepting an offer of marriage from the uninspiring and conventional Frank Besant, a schoolmaster at Cheltenham. She did so “out of sheer weakness and fear of inflicting pain,” as she later observed (Harrison 1977, 51), when she was only twenty, and lived to regret it. Two children were born in quick succession in 1869 and 1870, and Besant felt increasingly isolated and enslaved by her situation at a time when she was also rapidly losing her religious faith. When her husband took up a curacy in Lincolnshire, she tried to find an outlet in nursing local villagers during a typhoid epidemic. With her spiritual life in crisis, she wrote a pamphlet entitled “The Deity of Jesus of Nazareth by the Wife of a Beneficed Clergyman” in 1873 and refused to attend communion. Her husband asked her to leave.
After briefly trying to run her own school, Besant was drawn to the ideas of the radical atheist and freethinker Charles Bradlaugh. She also discovered a talent for public speaking (the timbre of her voice was noted by many in later years), and after Bradlaugh heard Besant speak in 1874, he offered her a job writing for and coediting a freethinker journal, the National Reformer. Now militant in her atheism, Besant began touring and lecturing at meetings of freethinkers in her desire to do away with religious bigotry and superstition in the fight for truth and a just society. Besant’s atheism placed her always outside the suffrage movement, whose conservative mainstream could never accept this attitude nor her status as a separated wife (she would never be able to get a divorce and marry Bradlaugh). Besant’s response to the hostility she constantly encountered in her defense of women’s rights was pragmatic: “If the Bible and Religion stand in the way of women’s rights then the Bible and Religion must go” (Longford 1981, 146).
In 1874 Besant became vice president of the National Secular Society and became fanatical in her very public advocacy of secularism to such a degree, indeed, that she alienated some would-be supporters—particularly in works such as her 1877 book, The Gospel of Atheism. In the late 1870s, she embraced a new cause, determined both to aid poor working-class women forced to endure endless unwanted pregnancies and to counter the high infant mortality rates and the unhealthy, overcrowded conditions in which so many poor families lived. In 1877 she and Bradlaugh organized the republication of a sixpenny pamphlet advocating birth control, The Fruits of Philosophy, originally written by U.S. doctor Charles Knowlton in 1832 in support of the social, medical, and economic needs for population control. The book explained the functioning of the reproductive system and some methods of contraception with accompanying diagrams (later deemed obscene), and was brought out by Besant and Bradlaugh with additional medical notes by Dr. George Drysdale, who supported Bradlaugh and the Malthusian League as a result of his own concern over population control. The pamphlet was produced without any support from English feminists, who were fearful that any endorsement they might give to Besant’s cause might damage their own.
After publication of the pamphlet, Besant and Bradlaugh were charged with obscenity and the promotion of sex outside marriage. In court, Besant distinguished herself with an eloquent and impassioned account of the suffering of the poor, describing her own firsthand observations made in the slums of the East End. The core of her argument challenged Victorian hypocrisy, with Besant asserting that “it is more moral to prevent the birth of children than it is after they are born to murder them… by want of food, and air, and clothing, and sustenance” (Manvell 1976, 91).
She and Bradlaugh were found guilty, fined £200 for selling an indecent book, and sentenced to six months in prison. On appeal the sentence was quashed over a legal technicality, but Besant paid a high price for her legal triumph. As a result of the scandal attached to the case and the subsequent publication by Besant of yet another controversial pamphlet, “Atheism and Malthusianism,” Besant’s estranged husband succeeded, after a long legal battle throughout 1878 and 1879, in gaining custody of her daughter Mabel, who had until then lived with Annie; her son Digby had remained with his father. Her access to her children was so restricted thereafter that Besant made the painful decision that it would be better for them if she cut herself off for the time being (she was reunited with them in the late 1880s, when they left their father to go and live with her).
Meanwhile, in the wake of the trial, sales of The Fruits of Philosophy rocketed from a few thousand to 185,000 sold between 1878 and 1881 by the Freethought Publishing Company. Besant published another pamphlet in 1879, “The Law of Population: Its Consequences, and Its Bearing upon Human Conduct and Morals,” in which she updated the limited medical information provided in Knowlton’s 1832 work. Dedicating this work specifically to the poor, she discussed the increasing social problems brought about by the population explosion and overcrowding in urban slums. The first birth control tract written by a woman for women, the pamphlet was targeted specifically at working-class women, describing methods of contraception such as the “safe period,” coitus interruptus, and the use of douches and sponges. By 1887, when it appeared in its 110th printing (it sold 175,000 copies by 1891), Besant was also advocating the use of a kind of pessary, the new cervical cap, but it would be more than forty years before the first birth control clinic would eventually be opened by Marie Stopes in 1921. Meanwhile, in Britain, Besant’s efforts to disseminate birth control literature contributed to a drop in the birth rate from the 1870s to the end of the century.
During this difficult period, Besant consoled herself by taking advantage of new university rules on the admission of women and studied for a degree in science at Birkbeck College in London, passing the preliminary exams in botany with first-class honors. The powers that be at Birkbeck chose not to publish her name in the list of results, however. The stigma of the Fruits of Philosophy case would dog her for the rest of her time in England.
Undaunted, in 1878 Besant produced a pamphlet in which, writing from all-too-painful personal experience, she argued against legal marriage so that unhappy marriages might be avoided and proposed that if women were accorded greater equality with men in relationships, they would not need to marry.
During 1881–1884, Besant had an intense affair with the socialist Edward Aveling, but he subsequently left her for Eleanor Marx. In 1884 after meeting George Bernard Shaw, Besant subsumed her need for passion in her life into socialism. (Shaw would later base the character of Raina in his play Arms and the Man on her.) She had already been active in the Social Democratic Federation and had joined the Fabians in 1885. She and journalist William Thomas Stead founded a socialist journal, The Link, to champion the rights of the oppressed and she also contributed to an important collection of articles edited by Shaw, the Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889). Along with many other women activists, Besant made use of a rare opportunity for women to enter public service by standing for election to the boards that controlled state schools. During 1887–1890 she served as a member of the London School Board for Tower Hamlets, introducing free school meals for poor children and lobbying for free medical care to be provided.
In 1888 Besant found herself at the center of another cause célèbre—this time the first strike in support of unskilled women factory workers in London’s East End. In June of that year, she had published an article entitled “White Slavery in London” in The Link, denouncing the long hours worked by women who did piecework in their homes and in the sweatshops and singling out the plight of those employed at the Bryant and May match factory, whose lives, she argued, were sacrificed for a paltry four shillings a week in the cause of giving shareholders their 23 percent. Like Alice Hamilton in the United States, Besant catalogued the appalling physical effects of factory employment on women workers, such as hair loss and the condition known as “phossy jaw”—a degenerative disease of the teeth, gums, and jawbones caused by ingesting phosphorus fumes during the manufacturing process. She was asked with Clementina Black to organize and publicize a strike by 1,400 of these women. It became a landmark in the history of English women’s trade unionism, equaling the famous shirtwaist makers strike of 1909–1910 in the United States. After a three-week strike, the management of Bryant and May’s caved in and agreed to introduce a radical overhaul of working conditions. Besant herself went back into the slums and factories after the strike and wrote and lectured on the miserable lives of other workers, from those who made matchboxes in their own homes to workers in the gas and printing industries.
At the end of the 1880s, becoming dissatisfied that socialism alone could not offer her all the answers she sought to the ills in society, Besant rediscovered her spiritual self in a new esoteric religious cult, which would unfortunately invite further derision and once again set her apart from many of her former colleagues and friends, including Shaw and even her closest ally, Charles Bradlaugh. She became a member of the circle surrounding Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, a Russian émigré who founded Theosophy, a religious movement that combined philosophy, mysticism, and Hindu and Buddhist teachings. Having been captivated by Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine (1888), an overview of her basic Theosophical teachings, Besant visited her and by 1889 had become a dedicated handmaiden, turning to vegetarianism and spiritualism and wholeheartedly adopting Blavatsky’s beliefs in reincarnation. Before long, Blavatsky’s inner sanctum had decamped to Besant’s home in St. John’s Wood, which became the society’s official headquarters. Besant took over the editorship of the Theosophist magazine Lucifer and, after Blavatsky’s death in 1891, became head of the movement in Europe and India.
It was this newfound religion that took Besant to India, a country that, because of Theosophy, represented for her the source of all ancient wisdom and that she began to look upon as her true spiritual home. But, having arrived there in 1893, true to character she was soon expending her energies on a myriad of new causes in education and social reform—in particular campaigning against child marriage, the caste system, and the plight of the untouchables—and enlisting the support of Indian members of the Theosophical Society. She learned Sanskrit and oversaw the publication of works on Hinduism, in 1895 translating the classic Indian work The Bhagavad Gita. In 1898 she founded Central Hindu College at Benares, the first of several educational institutions (including the Central Hindu Girls’ School in Benares) that she would establish in India, founded on Indian ideals and culture rather than Western models. In addition to all this activity, she still retained her links with English reformers and gave her continued support, from a distance, to the English suffrage movement.
From her first days in India, Besant was critical of British rule and the imposition of English mores on its ancient culture. After she was elected president of the Theosophical Society in 1907, she settled in Madras. By this time, she had adopted an Indian lifestyle and wore a sari. She encouraged the dissemination of Indian literature and philosophy and promoted indigenous Indian arts and crafts and the Swadeshi boycott of British textiles. She bought the Indian newspaper the Madras Standard and relaunched it under the title New India as a vehicle for Indian self-government. As an associate of Mahatma Gandhi, Besant supported Indian home rule, founding the India Home Rule League in 1916. Although she rejected Gandhi’s policies on civil disobedience as being too militant, she campaigned in earnest for Indian nationalism from 1913, publishing a collection of her lectures, Wake Up India: A Plea for Social Reform, and taking on much speech making and pamphlet writing. Her high public and political profile also attracted many Indian women into the campaign for women’s suffrage in India, with Besant adamant that real reform there could only be achieved when women had the vote.
In 1917 Besant was arrested and interned on a hill station for her vociferous condemnation of British rule, but the resulting public protest in India was so unprecedented that the authorities had to release her. That year she was also elected as the first woman president of the Indian National Congress (a post she held until 1923), although she was by no means the only woman associated with it. But Besant, the ersatz Indian for all her sari, found that her appeal as a spiritual and political leader was rapidly being eclipsed by that of a native leader—Gandhi—and her influence further waned with her disapproval of his policies of noncooperation with British officials from 1919. Besant left the Indian National Congress in 1923 after disagreeing over its campaigning methods. She remained a confirmed advocate of constitutional reform in India (in 1924 founding the National Constitutional Convention) and retained the respect she had earned as a social reformer by turning to other activities, such as founding the Indian Boy Scout movement in 1917 and serving as president of the Women’s Indian Association in 1917.
In her final years, Besant adopted a protégé, Jidda Krishnamurti, whom she proclaimed to be Theosophy’s new spiritual leader. She toured and lectured on his behalf, until in 1929 he seceded from the movement. In 1933 Annie Besant died at the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Adyar, near Madras, still searching for the answer to life’s riddles. She was given a traditional Indian cremation. In its obituary, the Hindu Patriot summed up her unique contribution: “An extraordinary woman, Irish by birth, English by manner, Indian by adoption” (Bennett 1988, 54). She was the author of over 100 books and pamphlets, including On the Nature and Existence of God (1875), Reincarnation (1892), Esoteric Christianity (1901), Theosophy and the New Psychology (1904), Lectures on Political Science (1919), and Shall India Live or Die? (1925).
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