Copyright 1999. Esther Katz. All rights reserved.
British feminist, birth control pioneer. Married Frank Besant in 1867, two children, divorced 1873. Though she had grown up with a marked spiritual bent and married a clergyman, Besant quickly became disillusioned with organized religion and with her marriage. Moving to London she became a secular humanist, began a close friendship with radical philosopher Charles Bradlaugh, and began writing and lecturing on secularism, marriage and women's rights. In 1877, she and Bradlaugh, who had for some years been promoting the need for smaller families as a route to economic uplift, decided to publish Charles Knowlton's The Fruits of Philosophy
, a little known tract promoting family limitation. Bradlaugh and Besant were arrested and charged with promoting obscenity. After a well-publicized trial that addressed the ideals of free speech as well as birth control, Besant and Bradlaugh were found guilty, though no punishment was applied. Though the trial was successful in public terms, it cost Besant the custody of her daughter, Mabel. Besant continued to write and lecture on the principles feminism and for a time embraced socialism. She became a member of the Fabian Society
, organized Britain's 1888 "match girl" strike, and several other socialist actions. Still in pursuit of spiritual gratification, Besant drifted away from socialist ideals and converted to Theosophy in 1889, becoming an influential advocate of the sect. In 1893 she moved to India where she worked for Indian Home Rule. Besant published her Autobiography