by Greg Betts
They called her Dr. Besant, even though she never practised medicine and was denied her Ph.D.. They called her "Annie Militant," even though she argued for passive resistance. Most favourably, they called her 'mother', because they knew that her love was all embracing.
The nicknames Annie Besant collected over the course of her life reflect
numorous attempts to comprehend a woman that was extraordinarily diverse, intelligent
Annie Besant's life began in hardship. She was born in England in 1847. The premature death of her father left the family in poverty. After his death Besant's mother placed all her hopes on her son, Henry, to resurect the family's financial standing. All financial and emotional resources were directed at Henry, leaving Besant alone to cultivate herself.
Hardship continued to plague Besant. She was married off to the pious Reverand Frank Besant, who quickly taught her to despise religion. He reacted to her intelligence with violence, even forcing her into labour with a knee to her pregnant abdomen. Eventually she fled to London with their two children.
Left to master her own future, Besant began her incredible journey. Her first job was as a governess, with enabled her to support her children and aging mother. It was a comfortable, and financially secure living. During this period, Besant caught wind of, and was intrigued by, the free-thinker and pro-active atheists, Charles Bradlaugh.
Bradlaugh, a vegetarian and famous man about London, drew great crowds whenever he spoke on social and economic issues. At their first meeting, Besant and Bradlaugh talked, debated, laughed and immediately fell in love. Besant grasped the concepts of his movement so effortlessly, even improving on them, that Bradlaugh soon insisted that she lecture herself. Within a few active years, George Bernard Shaw would offer this comment on Besant's skills: "She is the greatest orator in England, and possibly in Europe."
Besant, with the help of Bradlaugh, started a publishing company, and quickly gained fame for publishing a best-selling book delineating the necessity of birth-control. Even though the book was enormously popular, the two were charged under "obscenity" laws. Besant lost custody of her children, but rose to her defence. Determined to avoid jail, and regain custody, Besant learned the laws of England and became the first Britsh woman to defend herself. Although she lost custody, she won the case and received wide-spread attention. This prompted the opening of the world's first birth-control clinic one year later in the Netherlands.
In 1888, she lead the protest of 700 Bryant and Mays women in what was the first women's rights strikes. Their primary complaints were low wages and dangerous working conditions. Soon material concerns soon became secondary concern for Besant.
In 1887, she became the pupil of Madame Blavatsky, a spiritualist/occultist admired by the likes of W.B. Yeats. Blavatsky was also the acting president of the Theosophical Society, a powerful spiritual movement centred in India. In 1891, after Blavatsky passed away, the crown was handed over to Annie Besant who happily left "barbaric England for a more civilized India."
In India, Besant changed her entire wardrobe, from flowing red neck ties to ashen white saris, abandoned almost all furniture, and ate her Brahmanic vegetarian meals from large green leaves instead of plates. When she spoke of the future of India to gigantic crowds, whole audiences were moved to tears of hope. She spoke of compassion to all things living, and pointed her finger against European mentalities as a powerful enemy.
Mahatma Ghandi wrote after she lost her reign with the Theosophical Society, "I wish to express my admiration for this long record of service, and the amazing energy and courage that lay behind it. I cannot forget, though it is many years ago, the inspiration I drew from her in my boyhood and then again in my experiences of political activity."
She was a ferocious mind, championing movements from Indian self-government to Women's Suffrage, long before these movements were considered rational pursuits (particularly for a woman). Upon arriving in India, she believed herself to have found her home, and it was there she died peacefully at the end of a momentous and profound career.