Distinguished Women of Past and Present


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Annie Wood Besant

From: India, United Kingdom
Fields: Activism and Social Service, Human Rights, Religion
Key Words/Phrases: activist, Theosophist
Annie Wood was born in London to a middle-class Irish couple. After her father's death, relatives paid for her brother's education at Harrow while Annie was lucky to be admitted free to the home school of a family friend. At 19 she married a stern young vicar. Frustrated with domesticity, she tried to martyr herself in service to her husband's parishioners but quickly realized the poor needed better living and working conditions rather than handouts. Eventually her marriage foundered over her emerging progressivism. After divorcing Frank Besant, Annie supported herself and daughter by writing and lecturing for the Freethinkers, Theism and Fabian Socialism. George Bernard Shaw considered her Britain's and perhaps Europe's greatest orator.

In 1877 Annie, with Charles Bradlaugh, was arrested for selling birth control pamphlets in London's slums. They were convicted, but the verdict was overturned and the trial helped to liberalize public attitudes although it cost Annie custody of her daughter. She comforted herself by earning a science degree at London University. In 1888 she led the Match Girls' Strike that opened stockholders' and ultimately Victorians' eyes to cruel, unsafe labor practices against unskilled female factory workers.

But by then Annie had converted to Theosophy. She became its European and finally worldwide head. She lived most of her remaining years in India, rejoined at last by her son and daughter. After campaigning brilliantly for Home Rule, she died in Madras in 1933.

Contributed by Rebecca Bartholomew, author of Lost Heroines: Little-Known Women Who Changed Their World, in 1996.


1. A. Nethercot, The First Five Lives of Annie Besant (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1960)

2. Olivia Bennett, Annie Besant (London: Hamish Hamilton, In Her Own Time series, 1988)

3. Rebecca Bartholomew, Lost Heroines: Little-Known Women Who Changed Their World

(Salt Lake City: Uintah Springs Press, 1996)


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