Annie Besant was a social reformer and Theosophist who advocated for the independence and religious rights of women. Born to William and Emily Wood in 1847 England, Annie married a young clergyman, Frank Besant, at 19; they had two children. She questioned the extreme traditional religious views of her husband, and in response he ordered her out of the church, home, and family.
Besant preached a different kind of religion: free thought. She began working with Charles Bradlaugh (1833–1891), leader of the secular movement in Britain and editor of the radical paper National Reformer. They coauthored a book, The Fruits of Philosophy, which advocated the use of birth control, buttressed by such arguments as financial distress and over-crowding. Their writings caused them to be arrested in 1877 on charges of immorality, for which they served six months before the sentence was appealed and overturned. Not intimidated, Besant wrote another book advocating the use of birth control, The Laws of Population.
During the 1880s Besant attacked unhealthy working conditions and low wages for women factory workers, leading the Match Girls' Strike in 1888. A popular speaker on women's rights, Besant was elected to the London School Board and earned a science degree from London University. She continued to urge the legalization of birth control, and produced other writings defending free thought and atheism while criticizing Christianity. An 1887 pamphlet, "Why I Do Not Believe in God," coauthored with Bradlaugh, added to her notoriety.
In 1887, Besant met Spiritualist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891), who in 1885 had founded the Theosophical Society. Besant embraced Blavatsky's beliefs, which seemed to ignite a religious awakening within her. The Theosophical Society split into two branches after Blavatsky's death in 1891, with Annie Besant as president of one of them.
Besant emigrated to India, where she founded the Central Hindu College in 1898. She established the Indian Home Rule League in 1916 and became its president; in 1917, she became president of the Indian National Congress, but would break ties with Ghandi. Besant remained in India until her death in 1933, but returned to England in 1926–1927 with her protege, Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom she announced as the new Messiah.
Besant, Annie Wood. Annie Besant, An Autobiography. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1893. Reprint Adgar: The Theosophical Press, 1939.
——. Avatares. London: Theosophical Press, 1923.
——. H. P. Blavatsky and the Masters of the Wisdom. London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1918.