Annie Besant (1847-1933) achieved national prominence in 1877 when she and Charles Bradlaugh were prosecuted for publishing a book containing advice on contraception, ‘The Fruits of Philosophy, or the Private Companion of Young Married People.’ The author was American atheist and physician Charles Knowlton (1800-1850). The prosecution, which was vigorously supported by the Church, eventually failed, but it cost Annie the loss of her children.
Women could not at that time stand for Parliament, but Annie did stand for the newly created London School Board in 1888. She topped the poll in Tower Hamlets with 15000 votes and declared “Ten years ago, under a cruel law, Christian bigotry robbed me of my little child. Now the care of the 763,680 children of London is placed partly in my hands.”
Annie lived for several years with Bradlaugh. They never married. Bradlaugh founded the National Secular Society in 1866 and was elected MP for Northampton in 1880. They worked together on many projects and Annie became a highly regarded speaker for the NSS.
Annie Besant was also active in many of the other progressive social movements of her day, including the 1888 Match Girls Strike at the Bryant & May factory in Bow, Irish free rule and independence for India.
Annie’s interest in secularism wained in later years when she became drawn into Theosophy, a vaguely defined collection of philosophies that seeks answers from the ancient past.