International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. So what better day to remember the part that Irish women have played in shaping our world today.
Annie Besant was born in London in 1847. Her parents, William Wood and Ellen Morris, had moved from Dublin in 1845 at the height of the Famine. Tragedy would befall the family when aged only 5, Annie’s father died suddenly. This plunged Annie’s family into relative poverty.
A friend of the family, Ellen Marryat agreed to bring up Annie and insured she received a full education and allowed her to embark on a grand tour of Europe during her teenage years. Even at a young age, Annie would proudly proclaim her Irish heritage and openly embrace Catholic customs while travelling on the continent.
While tragic, Annie’s story would have been typical for the age. However, Annie’s response to these events was anything but typical. They clearly had a deep impact on her and would go on to influence and shape her beliefs on all matters, physical and spiritual.
Just prior to marrying her husband, Annie become deeply involved with the blight of the working poor in Manchester, leading to her joining numerous socialist and workers societies, and renouncing her Christian faith. This was the final straw for her clergyman husband. After she refused to take communion, they separated, with Annie taking custody of their daughter and her husband gaining custody of their son.
Annie would become a champion for workers and women’s rights in Victorian England. She was the first woman to run and win public office at local level. She advocated for the rights of women in both the home and the workplace. She lead the matchmakers strike in London in the 1880’s, and would publish numerous columns and pamphlets advocating the right of women to use contraception.
She campaigned for the right of home rule for both Ireland and India, setting up the All India Home Rule League in 1916, which would eventually elect Mahatma Gandhi as its leader. She would also journey from humble Christian to steadfast Atheist before discovering Theosophy, a western take on elements of Hinduism built around the ideas of karma and reincarnation.
Besant’s actions would have consequences. She was arrested numerous times in both England and India, for charges ranging from obscenity to sedition, but was never convicted. It would take a toll on her family, with her husband successfully using these charges to gain custody of her daughter.
In later years Besant’s interests turned more towards spiritual matters has she fully embraced Theosophy. This would lead her to proclaim that her adopted son was the new Messiah, amongst other fanciful claims. Besant would also continue the fight for Indian independence right up to her death in 1933.
Image of Annie courtesy of the BBC.