Both Annie Wood Besant and Charles Bradlaugh were radical agents of change in their time, yet it was Besant who most clearly broke from the accepted roles of women to shape her society.
With the Industrial Revolution in full swing and the middle class on the rise, it seemed that Britain was a most progressive empire. Despite its having abolished slavery in 1833, women still lacked basic rights. According to Judith Coffin and Robert Stacey, women, “were supposed to occupy a ‘separate sphere’ of life, in which they lived in subordination to their spouses” (693). Legal codes throughout Europe placed women under the authority of their husbands or fathers. In fact, the Napoleonic code lumped women, children, and the mentally ill together as legally incompetent” (Coffin – 694). A woman’s property rights in Britain were assigned to her husband when she married. It was in the midst of this indignity and struggle that Annie Wood Besant was born. Though a collaborator in the cause of freedom with Bradlaugh, Besant had stepped farther outside the pale of accepted behavior for a Victorian woman.
Bradlaugh was undoubtedly radical, but perhaps this was tempered by the fires of radicalism and revolution that pervaded Europe at this time. Bradlaugh’s early departure from accepted social norms came as he began to question his faith. His intelligence and eagerness to learn propelled him into a student teaching position at a local Anglican church. In the course of his studies, his questions regarding discrepancies within the gospels lead to his being branded an atheist by the priest who had first taken the young man under his wing. It was this incident that lead Bradlaugh to fall in with the Freethinker movement. He soon became caught up in various social causes. Atheism in Victorian England was undoubtedly radical in that day, though his other views – while not necessarily popular with the upper class – were embraced. As the Slaughter text points out, “Bradlaugh clearly understood the antagonism that ‘respectable’ society directed at the secularists and freethinkers” (157). Armed with this knowledge, Bradlaugh made the effort to eliminate his working-class accent and appearance. Ironically, he took on the appearance of an Anglican minister. Later in life he became a member of the British parliament. As a radical, Charles Bradlaugh had chosen the relative safety of working within the system.
While a man may have had the luxury of defying the norm, perhaps even to the accolades of his peers, the same was not true for the Victorian woman.
Annie Wood Besant was educated, a fairly radical departure in itself. Not having learned the domestic and social arts of her female contemporaries, but, rather, science coupled with a lifelong love of the act of learning and the ability to think and reason critically and independently. This combination did not prepare her for marriage to a man such as Frank Besant. Besant rejected the social norms of her contemporaries, “too proud to talk with [her husband’s] colleagues’ wives about babies, servants, and household management” (Slaughter – 161).
In an age where women were seen as angels of the household, whose duty it was to instruct the children in the faith, Annie rejected that faith and refused to take communion (161), leading to her being asked by Frank to leave. Disgruntled and disillusioned with her husband, Besant agreed. Placed in the perspective of modern times, it might seem a minor point, yet it is noted that the impact of this separation was not lost on the young woman. Well aware of the scandal involved, she refused to live with [her mother] and her brother in order to spare them the embarrassment” (Slaughter – 162). Bradlaugh, by comparison, separated from his alcoholic wife yet maintained contact with her until her death. The text does not give the implication that Bradlaugh suffered the same social stigma that followed Besant.
While still married, Annie also went against the social norms which dictated large families. Uncomfortable with sex and the idea of having more children, she went to a doctor to get advice on birth control. It was this selfsame quest that eventually led to her greatest fame as an advocate of women’s reproductive rights.
When Besant and Bradlaugh reissued a pamphlet on birth control, the two were arrested on obscenity charges. During the four-day trial, it was Annie who provided the majority of the defense, using the dock at a pulpit to expound her views on overpopulation and socioeconomic conditions. In the aftermath of the trial, Besant’s radicalism cost her custody of her children. In later days she would become a socialist, and a member of the Fabian Society.
Bradlaugh and Besant were co-laborers in the fight for social change in Britain, yet it was the woman whose labors, by virtue of the social climate, that was the more radical. Bradlaugh, with the freedom to “think different,” chose to present a respectable front to society. Though losing family, friends, and dignity, Besant pushed forward in her cause. In an age where society tried to force women into a mold, Annie broke with tradition to help shape her nation’s future.
Coffin, Judith G. and Robert C. Stacey. Western Civilizations: Their History & Their Culture. W.W. Norton, NY, 2005
Slaughter, Jane and Melissa K. Bokovoy. Sharing the Stage: Biography and Gender in Western Civilization. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2003