Annie Wood Besant (October 1, 1847 – September 20, 1933) was a prominent English women's rights and labor activist, writer, orator, social reformer, author, freedom fighter and worldwide head of the Theosophy movement, who struggled with Mahatma Gandhi for India's freedom.
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 National 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 contraceptionEdit
Annie Besant was a member of the National Secular Society, which preached 'freethought' and of the Fabian Society, the noted socialist organisation whose members included George Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb 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 suffrage, 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".
After joining the Social Democratic Federation, Mrs Besant 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. In this, she was helped by HH Champion.
This action, in which Besant campaigned with William Booth and Catherine Booth of the Salvation Army, was the first strike by unorganised workers to gain national publicity. The Matchgirls Strike was also successful at helping to inspire the formation of unions all over Britain, and Bryant & May workers gained some protection against the appalling conditions under which they had formerly worked, and the yellow phosphorus-induced diseases that had plagued them.
Besant was a prolific writer and a powerful orator. In 1889, she was asked to write a review on The Secret Doctrine, a book by Helene Blavatsky. After reading it, she sought an interview with its author, and in this way, was converted to Theosophy.
Soon after becoming a member of the Theosophical Society she went to India for the first time (in 1893). After a Theosophical Society dispute, where William Quan Judge, leader of the American section was accused of falsifying letters from the Masters, the American section split away. The remainder of the Society was then led by Henry Steel Olcott and Besant and is today based in Chennai, India and is known as the Theosophical Society Adyar. Thereafter she devoted much of her energy not only to the Society, but also to India's freedom and progress. Besant Nagar, a neighborhood (near the Theosophical Society) in Chennai is named in her honor.
Involvement in Theosophy Society controversiesEdit
Together with Charles Webster Leadbeater she investigated the universe, matter and the history of mankind through clairvoyance. The two became embroiled over Leadbeater's advice to young boys to masturbate. At the time such advice was highly controversial. He had to leave the Theosophical Society over this in 1906. In 1908 he was taken back into the fold through the agency of Besant, who had been elected president of the Theosophical Society in 1907 upon the death of the previous president Henry Steel Olcott.
Up until Besant's presidency, the society had as one of its foci Theravada Buddhism and the island of Ceylon, where Henry Olcott did the majority of his useful work. Under Besant's leadership there was a decisive turn away from this and a refocusing of their activities on "The Aryavarta", as she called central India. Besant actively courted Hindu opinion more than former Theosophical leaders. This was a clear reversal of policy from Blavatsky and Olcott's very public conversion to Buddhism in Ceylon, and their promotion of Buddhist revival activities on the subcontinent.
Soon after Besant's inheritance of the presidency, in 1909, Leadbeater discovered Jiddu Krishnamurti on the private beach that was attached to the societies headquarters at Adyar. Krishnamurti had been living there with his father and brother for a few months prior to this. This discovery started years of upheaval in the Theosophical Society Adyar, as the boy was proposed as the incarnate vessel for the Christ. Jiddu Krishnamurti and his brother Nitya were brought up by Theosophists from that moment on, with a subsequent lawsuit filed by his father.
Eventually, in 1929, Krishnamurti ended up disbanding the Order of the Star of the East, which had been founded to support him and of which he had been made the leader.  This destroyed Besant's spirit, as it went against her ideals.
Annie Besant in AustraliaEdit
Mrs Besant lectured in Australia in September and October, 1894.
- AnandGholap.net - Online Books by Annie Besant
- Links to books by Annie Besant
- Theosophical.ca On-Line Documents Some works of Annie Besant and other theosophists
- Annie Besant writings at Project Gutenberg
- Books by Annie Besant and other authors
- Annie Wood Besant: Orator, Activist, Mystic, Rhetorician By Susan Dobra
- Confounding or Amazing? The Multiple Deconversions of Annie Wood Besant By Carol Hanbery MacKay
- Biography (BBC)
- Annie Besant: A Tribute
- Annie Besant's Quest for Truth: Christianity, Secularism, and New Age Thought
- Biography and links
- Biography, quotes and links
- Annie Besant Memorial from the Indian Post
- History of Theosophical Society Adyar and Besant
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