Annie Besant

On this date in 1847, Annie Besant (née Wood) was born in London. The sheltered girl married the unpleasant Rev. Frank Besant (rhymes with "pleasant") at 20. Besant, she later quipped in an early autobiography, had "very high ideas of a husband's authority and a wife's submission." Besant met liberal former minister Moncure Conway, and after a course of reading, gave up Christianity at age 25 and soon after separated from her husband. In 1874, Annie met Charles Bradlaugh, Britain's most prominent freethought leader and an attorney for the poor, who offered her a position on the weekly National Reformer. They embarked on a platonic professional partnership of writing, speaking and reform. Besant became a celebrity among reformers, with George Bernard Shaw praising her as "the greatest orator in England, and possibly in Europe." Annie persuaded Charles to reprint The Fruits of Philosophy, a book about birth control, to challenge the Obscene Publications Act. They were arrested, tried and narrowly avoided jail. When Annie shrewdly rewrote the outdated booklet, her version became a bestseller that hastened the birth control movement worldwide. But her involvement lost her custody of her 8-year-old daughter. Annie became a student at London University when it agreed to admit women in 1878, receiving the only honors award in botany in 1881 in Prof. Thomas Huxley's class. She was the first woman on the London School Board, and an advocate for working class women and woman suffrage. Her enthusiasms for other causes and other men gradually strained her friendship with Bradlaugh. The rudest shock to Bradlaugh, his daughter Hypatia, and admirers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton came in 1889, when Besant officially converted to theosophy. Although retaining affection for the freethought movement, she became a successor to the mystic founder of theosophy, Mme. Blavatsky, moving to India. A fanatical bent which her mother had detected (her mother's prophetic dying words: "it has been darling Annie's only fault; she has always been too religious") took Besant on a journey to occultism. Even in India, however, Besant was a true reformer, never quite losing her practical bent. An early supporter of Indian Home Rule, she was later praised by freethinker Jawaharlal Nehru as the "Mother of India." D. 1933.

“ . . . I rejoice that I played my part in that educating of England which has made impossible for evermore the crude superstitions of the past, and the repetition of the cruelties and injustices under which preceding heretics suffered.”

—Annie Besant, Autobiography (1910)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor; Photo used with permission in Women Without Stuperstition

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