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. The reverend, she later quipped in an early autobiography, had “very high ideas of a husband’s authority and a wife’s submission.” Besant, after a course of reading, gave up Christianity at age 25 and soon after separated from her husband. In 1874 she 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.” She persuaded Bradlaugh 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. She then rewrote the outdated booklet, but her involvement lost her custody of her 8-year-old daughter.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 professor 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 enthusiasm for other causes and other men gradually strained her friendship with Bradlaugh. The rudest shock to Bradlaugh, his daughter Hypatia and other admirers came in 1889, when Besant adopted a new religious movement called theosophy.

Although retaining affection for freethought, she became a successor to the mystic founder of theosophy, Helena Blavatsky, and moved to India. A fanatical bent took Besant on a journey to occultism. But even in India, she was a true reformer, never quite losing her practical sensibilities. (D. 1933)

Freedom From Religion Foundation