Annie Besant was born in 1847. Her father, a doctor, died when she was five, and her mother found work looking after boarders at Harrow School. Mrs Besant was unable to care for her daughter, and so a family friend brought her up.
In 1866, she met the Rev. Frank Besant. Although only nineteen, she married him, and by the time she was twenty-three she had two children. However she was deeply unhappy, partly because her independent spirit clashed with the traditional views of her husband. She also began to question her religious beliefs. When she refused to attend communion, her husband ordered her to leave the family home. A legal separation was arranged and Digby, the son, stayed with his father, and the daughter Mabel went to live with Annie in London.

After the separation she completely rejected Christianity and in 1874 joined the Secular Society. She developed a close relationship with Charles Bradlaugh, editor of the National Reformer and leader of the secular movement in Britain. Charles Bradlaugh gave Annie a job working for the National Reformer and during the next few years, she wrote many articles on issues such as marriage and women's rights.

In 1877 they decided to publish The Fruits of Philosophy,  a book by Charles Knowlton advocating birth control. Annie and Bradlaugh were charged with publishing material that was "likely to deprave or corrupt those whose minds are open to immoral influences". They argued in court 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 both found guilty of publishing an "obscene libel" and sentenced to six months in prison. At the Court of Appeal the sentence was quashed. Annie subsequently wrote and published her own book advocating birth control, entitled The Laws of Population.

The idea of a woman advocating birth control received wide publicity, and caused trouble for Annie. The Times accused her of writing "an indecent, lewd, filthy, bawdy and obscene book", and her ex-husband used the publicity of the case to persuade the courts that he should have custody of their daughter Mabel. But it didn't stop her. She joined the Social Democratic Federation, and started her own campaigning newspaper called The Link. She was concerned about the health of young women workers at the Bryant & May match factory. On 23rd June, 1888, she published an article, White Slavery in London, where she drew attention to the dangers of phosphorus fumes and complained about the low wages paid to the women who worked at Bryant & May. Three women who provided information for the article were sacked. Annie responded by helping the women at Bryant & May to form a Match-girls Union. After a three-week strike, Bryant & May were forced to make significant concessions, including the reinstatement of the sacked workers.

In 1889 Annie was elected to the London School Board. Some of her many achievements included a programme of free meals for undernourished children, and free medical examinations for all those in elementary schools. A few years later she was introduced to Theosophy - a religious movement founded by Helena Blavatsky. She became highly attracted to Hindu philosophy, and in 1893 she left the country for India, where she lived until her death.

She continued to write letters to British newspapers arguing the case for women's suffrage and in 1911 was one of the main speakers at an important suffragist rally in London. However, her main goal was fighting for Indian home rule. She was one of the founder members of the Home Rule League, and was interned for her activities by the British authorties during the First World War. She became friends with Gandhi, attended the 1914 session of the Indian National Congress and presided over it in 1917. She was deeply in love with the culture and the spirituality of the country. She spent the end of her life bringing up the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, and sponsoring his ideas. She died in 1933.


 

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