Annie Besant , English social reformer and theosophist, c 1885.
© NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society Picture Library
Besant (1847-1933), birth control pioneer and friend of George Bernard Shaw, separated from her clergyman husband, and lost her children because of her atheism. A socialist free-thinker, she was tried on a charge of immorality for reprinting a pamphlet on birth control. In 1888, she publicised the plight of women at Bryant and May's London factory who were on strike protesting at appalling working conditions. The company backed down, reinstating sacked workers and abolishing fines, and Besant became leader of the Matchgirls' Union. In 1889 she took up theosophy, a philosophical system founded in 1875 by Madame Blavatsky. Besant travelled to India where she became president of the Indian Home Rule League and the Indian National Congress.