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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Annie Wood Besant

b. 1847, London; d. 1933, Adyar, Madras [now Chennai], Tamil Nadu, India

Legally separated from her husband, a conservative clergyman, Annie Wood Besant supported herself and her daughter by lecturing and writing, including articles on marriage and women’s rights. Besant rejected Christianity and in 1874 joined the Secular Society in London; that same year she took a staff position with the radical journal, The National Reformer. In her writings and as a member of the Social Democratic Federation, the first Marxist political group in Britain, Besant became an advocate for young women workers, exposing dangerous factory conditions and calling for fair wages. Her tract on women’s right to birth control, The Laws of Population (1884), elicited public accusations of obscenity. In 1889, she was elected to the London School Board and launched a large-scale reform of local schools, instituting a program of free meals for undernourished children and free medical examinations for all those enrolled in elementary schools. Soon after, she adopted Theosophy, a mystical religious cult founded by H. P. Blavatsky, and moved to India in the 1890s. Although involved in the Indian struggle for home rule, Besant remained committed to women’s rights, speaking at rallies and writing letters to British newspapers arguing the case for suffrage.