The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Ann Besant, 1847-1933

Nationality: British
Date of Birth: 1847.10.01
Place of Birth:
Date of Death: 1933.09.20
Place of Death:


Born in 1847 to Emily Morris and William Wood, Annie Besant spent her upbringing in the care of her mother's friend, Ellen Marryat. She married the Reverend Frank Besant in 1866, though the pair later separated.


She was a writer and political thinker renowned for her unorthodox religious views. Besant was committed to first atheism, freethought, socialism, secularism and later theosophy - a stance that was to radically differ from the traditional moral opinion of her husband the Rev. Frank Besant. (It was on such grounds that the pair later became separated).

In 1874 Annie joined the Secular Society, developing a close relationship with Charles Bradlaugh, editor of the radical National Reformer and leader of the secular movement in Britain. Together they wrote many articles on issues such as marriage and women's rights. However their most famous and controversial project was the publication in 1877 of Charles's Knowlton's bookThe Fruits of Philosophy, which advocated birth control. Besant later wrote and published her own book advocating birth control entitled The Laws of Population.

Having joined the Social Democratic Federation, Annie started her own campaigning newspaper called 'The Link'. Concerned about the health of young women workers at the Bryant and May match factory, she published an article, 'White Slavery in London', to draw attention to the dangers of phosphorus fumes in factories. She also campaigned to raise female wages within such environments.

In 1889 Besant was elected to the London School Board, where among her many achievements, she implemented a programme of free meals for undernourished children and free medical examinations for all those in elementary schools.

In the 1890s Besant became a supporter of Theosophy, a religious movement founded by Madame Blavatsky in 1875, that was based on Hindu ideas of karma and reincarnation with nirvana as the eventual aim. Besant went to live in India but she remained interested in the subject of women's rights. 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.

While in India, Annie joined the struggle for Indian Home Rule, and during the First World War was interned by the British authorities. She died in India in 1933.

Bibliography: (accessed 2004); (accessed 2004); Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford, 2004.