Annie Besant – striking early blows for workers’ rights

Following the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, socialist politics is once more making headlines, so this week’s blog is devoted to an early socialist who took huge risks for her beliefs and had a passionate commitment to her many causes.

Annie Besant was born in 1847 to a middle class family of Irish origin. But her father died when she was five, leaving her mother penniless. Her mother was forced to run a boarding house to make ends meet, and at nineteen, Annie married an older clergyman. But the marriage was a disaster. Annie wrote short stories, books and articles, but her husband took all her earnings because married women didn’t have the right to own property. Annie, however, was feisty and independent and became increasingly anti-religious and political, supporting the early efforts of farm workers to form unions, which didn’t go down well with her Tory husband. Eventually he threw her out; he kept their son, Annie moved to London with their daughter.

Freedom from her husband allowed Annie to turn her attention to social reform and she became a popular public speaker. Together with close friend Charles Bradlaugh, she edited a journal called the National Reformer, which supported progressive causes including trade unions, national education, and women’s suffrage. Together with Charles, she published a book that advocated birth control. As a result, both were charged with publishing material that was “likely to deprave or corrupt those whose minds are open to immoral influences”. In court they argued: “we think it more moral to prevent conception of children than, after they are born, to murder them by want of food, air and clothing.” She later wrote and published her own book, described by newspapers as “an indecent, lewd, filthy, bawdy and obscene book.” This caused her husband to persuade the courts that she was an unfit mother and obtain custody of their daughter.

In 1888, Annie was responsible for the one of the first strikes, when she became concerned about the health of female workers at the Bryant and May match factory. She published an article in which she described the dangers of phosphorus fumes and revealed the low wages that the women received. A woman was subsequently sacked for providing the information. So Annie organized the Matchgirls Union, leading to 1,400 women refusing to work. After three weeks of negotiations, the sacked woman was reinstated, and pay and working conditions vastly improved as a result.

Annie was also a member of the socialist group the Fabian Society, and was elected to the London School Board, where she campaigned for reforms including free meals for undernourished children and free medical examinations for all those in elementary schools.

Despite rejecting religion, Annie remained interested in spiritual matters and in 1875 became a member and later president of the Theosophical society, a religious movement based on Hindu beliefs. She spread her ideas throughout the world, particularly India, where she settled in 1893, and became leader of the Indian nationalist movement, later fighting for Indian Home Rule. She founded the Central Hindu College and received a degree in Sanskrit literature, English literature and Indian history. Throughout this time, she wrote letters to British newspapers in support of women’s suffrage and in 1911 was one of the main speakers at a Suffrage rally in London.

In the late 1920s, Annie traveled to the United States with her protégé and adopted son Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom she claimed was the new Messiah, a claim he later refuted.

Annie died in India in 1933 at the age of 86, having described her life thus: “Never forget that life can only be nobly inspired and rightly lived if you take it bravely and gallantly, as a splendid adventure in which you are setting out into an unknown country, to meet many a joy, to find many a comrade, to win and lose many a battle.”