Besant was a British social reformer, campaigner for women's rights and a supporter of Indian nationalism.
Annie Woods was born in London on 1 October 1847. She had an unhappy childhood, undoubtedly partly due to her father's death when she was five. Annie's mother persuaded her friend Ellen Marryat, sister of the writer Frederick Marryat, to take responsibility for her daughter and Ellen ensured that Annie received a good education.
In 1867, Annie married Frank Besant, a clergyman, and they had two children. But Annie's increasingly anti-religious views led to a legal separation in 1873. Besant became a member of the National Secular Society, which preached 'free thought', and also of the Fabian Society, the noted socialist organisation.
In the 1870s, Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh edited the weekly National Reformer, which advocated advanced ideas for the time on topics such as trade unions, national education, womens' right to vote, and birth control. For their pamphlet on birth control the pair were brought to trial for obscenity, but were subsequently acquitted.
Besant supported a number of workers' demonstrations for better working conditions. In 1888 she helped organise a strike of the female workers at the Bryant and May match factory in east London. The women complained of starvation wages and the terrible effects on their health of phosphorus fumes in the factory. The strike eventually led to their bosses significantly improving their working situation.
Social and political reform seems not to have satisfied Besant's hunger for some all-embracing truth to replace the religion of her youth. She became interested in Theosophy, a religious movement founded in 1875 and based on Hindu ideas of karma and reincarnation. As a member and later leader of the Theosophical Society, Besant helped to spread Theosophical beliefs around the world, notably in India.
Besant first visited India in 1893 and later settled there, becoming involved in the Indian nationalist movement. In 1916 she established the Indian Home Rule League, of which she became president. She was also a leading member of the Indian National Congress.
In the late 1920s, Besant travelled to the United States with her protégé and adopted son Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom she claimed was the new Messiah and incarnation of Buddha. Krishnamurti rejected these claims in 1929.
Besant died in India on 20 September 1933.
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