Annie Besant – Social Reformer

Annie Besant: ‘Leading Change’ in Women’s Rights

During the nineteenth century, many women activists fought for change in Ireland and worldwide. Annie Besant, featured in our ‘Leading Change’ gallery at EPIC, was born in London in 1847. Her parents, William Wood and Ellen Morris, had moved from Dublin in 1845 at the height of the Famine. Annie was just 5 years old when tragedy befall the family with the sudden loss of their father and subsequent descent into poverty.

A friend of the family, Ellen Marryat agreed to bring up Annie and insured she received a full education. This allowed Annie to embark on a grand tour of Europe during her teenage years.

Besant seemed destined to fall into a normal, humdrum middle class life. However things were about to radically change. Just prior to marrying her husband, Annie became deeply involved with the blight of the working poor in Manchester. This led to her joining numerous socialist and workers societies, as well as joining the National Secular Society and renouncing her Christian faith. After she refused to take communion, Annie and her husband separated. Annie took custody of their daughter while her husband gained custody of their son.

A free-thinker with a global conscience

Besant would go on to become a widely-travelled social reformer who campaigned for Women’s Rights as well as a socialist, theosophist and writer. Besant was imprisoned along with good friend Charles Bradlaugh for publishing a book by birth control campaigner and supporter Charles Knowlton. Despite this, Besant persevered in her free-thinking methodology, becoming an important speaker for the National Secular Society, and being elected to the London School Board.

Annie Besant was also a prominent supporter of Indian Nationalism, and a member of National Secular Society for Free Thinkers as well as the socialist Fabian society. She was editor of The National Reformer which covered trade unions, education, women’s rights and birth control, a pamphlet of which caused her to be brought to trial. In 1893, Besant went to India and joined the Indian National Congress. After the First World War, she was a leading figure in the launch of the Home Rule League for an Indian democracy. Annie Besant did not only support Home-Rule for India, but for Ireland too.