Birth control pioneer: Annie Besant (and why we should stan)

Reviewed: May 7, 2021
From publishing a forbidden contraceptive book to forming a birth control league.

A women’s rights activist, writer, orator, educationist and philanthropist, Annie Besant has been regarded as a champion of human freedom and believed families should be able to make their own choice on having children. Living in a time where women were their husband’s possession, had no place in politics and sex and contraception was often a forbidden topic for discussion, Besant certainly defied the odds.

Here, Sophie King explains why we should stan*.

Annie Besant’s early life

Born as Annie Wood in London in 1847, Annie Besant had an unhappy childhood. She sadly lost her father when she was just five years old and as her mother was unable to support the family, Besant was cared for by a family friend – Ellen Marryat. Besant had a good education and growing up, she was given a strong sense of duty to society as well as a strong sense of what women could achieve. Here, her passion for gender equality and female empowerment was born.

When she was 20, she married clergyman Frank Besant and they had two children. However, only a few years into the marriage, the relationship became rocky. Besant had already started writing, but as women had no legal rights to own property during that time, all of the money from her published work went straight to her husband. Understandably, this hit a strong nerve with her and this was when cracks started to form in their relationship.

In addition, Besant’s husband was a clergyman, and so was well known within the Church. At the same time, she was becoming more and more anti-religious. Politics also began to divide them. She began to support farm workers who were fighting to unionise and win better conditions. But as a Conservative supporter, Frank sided with the landlords. If this isn’t a recipe for a relationship disaster then I’m unsure what is.

But wait, there’s more. Six years into their marriage, Besant became a member of the National Secular Society (NSS) which preached free thought and challenged religious privilege. She had also been introduced to radicals, the Manchester Martyrs, who were three men executed for the murder of a police officer. They were also members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood which was an organisation dedicated to ending British Rule in Ireland. Not only that, but Besant was also starting to learn about the conditions of the urban poor.

The final nail in the coffin was when Besant refused to attend Communion. She found herself becoming more and more disillusioned with religion and the couple parted by legal separation in 1873. Divorce was out of the question for her husband and so Besant was forced to remain Mrs Besant for the rest of her life. For now, she was able to keep contact with both of her children, having one live with her. She also received a small allowance from her husband.

Finding her voice

After the separation, Besant began to question her own faith entirely. She also started to fight for what she felt was right. This included freedom of thought, birth control and workers’ rights. She began to write pieces attacking the churches for the way they controlled people’s lives. She then began to give public lectures for the NSS on these topics.

Through these groups, Besant met Charles Bradlaugh. He had founded the NSS and was also an atheist and republican. The pair became great friends and started editing the radical weekly publication National Reformer. In it were discussions on women’s rights, workers’ rights and national education.

Fuelled with passion and the need for change, the pair wanted to go bigger than the newsletter.  One of their projects included forming their own publishing company Freethought Publishing Company. In 1877, they published Fruits of Philosophy, a book written by Charles Knowlton (an American physician and writer) that claimed working-class families and poorer families could never be happy until they were able to have control over how many children they had. It suggested recipes for contraception and was one of the first publications in Britain detailing methods for controlling reproduction.

Unsurprisingly, the church was furious with the publication. At the time, there were anti-obscenity laws in place which prohibited the publication of literature that discussed reproduction and because of this, Besant and Bradlaugh were arrested.

However, the liberal side of the press supported them and they made the trial a media sensation. There were several columns published in support of the two which fuelled arguments back and forth regarding their trial. Writers began to discuss the role of birth control in limiting family size. Unfortunately, they were found guilty but were released pending appeal. Because of the trial, 125,000 copies of their book were sold – it was at just 1,000 before they were arrested, demonstrating that the public did want to talk about contraception.

The pair ended up being sentenced to six months in prison but their conviction was appealed and the case ended being wound up because of a technical point.

Sadly, while it was poignant for birth control liberation, the trial cost Besant custody of her children. Her husband was able to convince the court that she was unfit to look after them and so he was granted full custody of them both.

Newfound fame

While she was on trial (if that wasn’t enough stress), in 1877 Besant founded The Malthusian League. It advocated the practice of contraception and the education about the importance of family planning. It was concerned about the poverty of the British working class and held that over-population was the main cause of poverty. It also helped fight for eliminating penalties for promoting birth control.

Another argument that came from the League was that by allowing people (especially the poor) to utilise contraception, wages would be able to increase as a result of improving the problem of over-population. It then said that as a result of this, maternal and child health would improve as doctors and nurses wouldn’t be so overwhelmed.

By the end of that year, the league had over 900 members and after the first meeting in July 1878, membership rates were at 1,000 members. They came from a wide range of areas such as medicine, publishing and politics.
Because of the league, Besant quickly rose to fame and she was able to continue to support people fighting for contraceptive change. She and Bradlaugh grew apart as he pursued a career in politics which was no place for a woman at that time.

Advocate for other movements

During the time of Besant’s popularity, unemployment was a central issue. In 1887, some of the unemployed started to hold protests in London and Besant agreed to appear as a speaker. However, the protests turned violent, leaving one man dead and many other injured. Besant was heavily criticised as a result, although many still praised her, and so she helped to provide legal aid for the jailed workers and their families.

Elsewhere, in 1888, she helped to organise a strike for female workers at the Bryant and May match factory. The female employees complained of starvation wages and the awful effects from the phosphorus fumes in the factory. Besant helped to set up a committee for the factory so that employees could communicate any issues they had. As a result of the strike, they gained a lot of public support. The women were cheered in the street and in just over a week the firm was forced to improve pay and conditions.

Breaking the stigma against using contraception to allow families to have a choice and helping improve workers’ rights are just some of the positive change Besant helped with in her life. Not only did she help women with their birth control rights but she fought for so many other causes as well.
*Cue extremely long sentence to show just how much more Besant did*. She converted to Theosophy, then became president of the Theosophical Society which led her to set up a school for boys as its previous leader had given advice to boys telling them to masturbate, she became legal guardian of two boys whose father was too poor to take care of them, she moved to India where she attacked child marriage and she launched India’s first political party to have regime change as its main goal.

We hope Besant’s legacy lives on for many more years. She certainly was a fighter and a good one at that.

To stan: To be a huge fan of or express extreme support for something or someone.
Photo credit: Wikipedia

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