Important Battles

Back in 1877, Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh found themselves in front of the Lord Chief Justice, defending their publication of a small book in a trial that was described as ‘one of the most critical in the history of our liberties’. The book, entitled The Fruits of Philosophy, had originally been written by an American doctor named Knowlton, and was a pamphlet that informed its public gently, and so euphemistically in places as to have probably been quite opaque, about the possibilities of birth control. For their troubles, Besant and Bradlaugh stood in the dock accused of circulating obscene material calculated to deprave public morals and faced the likelihood of a lengthy stretch in jail.

This was not going to happen if Annie Besant had anything to say about it. The decision to publish had been essentially hers, and as a campaigner for women’s rights, for social reform and for helping all the poor underdogs of the world, she had many excellent reasons why she wanted that pamphlet in circulation. Besant had decided to conduct her own defence, and for two days she spoke eloquently and compellingly about the reasons for its existence. There had to be some education for the poor, she argued, who suffered a terrible burden with over-large families. Fathers fell on hard times through unemployment or falling wages and had to struggle with the guilt of failing their families, women were exhausted and ill from too-frequent child bearing, and the infant rate of mortality was shocking amongst the poor. ‘Gentlemen, do you know the fate of so many of these children? – the little ones half starved because there is food enough for two but not enough for twelve; half clothed because the mother, no matter what her skill and care, cannot clothe them with the money brought home by the breadwinner of the family; brought up in ignorance, and ignorance means pauperism and crime.’ The members of the jury, she maintained, lived in happier circumstances, and did not know what family life was like under such harsh conditions. ‘I hold that it is more moral to prevent the birth of children than it is after they are born to murder them as you do today by want of food, and air, and clothing and sustenance.’

In the heart of the Victorian era, this stirring campaign ought to have heralded a relaxing of the kind of constrictions that troubled all classes. Middle and upper class families had their own reasons, too, for wanting to restrict the size of their families, and in these times of extreme delicacy about sexual matters, men were supposed to embrace abstinence in the face of their womenfolk’s distaste for the pleasures of the flesh. What happened instead, as we now know today, was the boom of the prostitution industry, with numbers in London indicating that there was one prostitute for every dozen men in the local population. Hidden it may all have been, under a veil as dense and choking as the London peasouper fogs, but the reliance on prostitutes was a major cause of contagious disease as well as the source of confused relations between men and women. So much would have been eased and improved in the Victorian way of life, had birth control been readily available, but it outraged and offended polite society, seeming to interfere in unacceptable ways with the innocence of women, the demands of religion and the contract between husband and wife. Indeed, one of the great disadvantages the defendants faced in this trial was that the most eloquent speaker and the most committed reformer was a woman, who dared to speak out this way to her male audience.

Annie Besant had been through her own troubles. She had divorced her minister husband after a brief but deeply unhappy marriage, nursed a child through a life-threatening illness and recently lost her mother. These events had conspired to make her lose her faith, by no means a simple matter in her society. She had joined the Freethinkers, the group who preached (and the word is accurate) in opposition to established religion, and who involved themselves with many social causes. Annie’s extraordinary talent for writing tracts and pamphlets, and for public speaking, had taken her to the head of the organization and to an abiding friendship with its leader, Charles Besant. But for all that, she was beyond the pale of society, an anti-Christian, a divorced woman and a suffragette, too (in fact the woman’s movement wouldn’t have her, as too dangerously tainted goods).

After her rousing speech, Bradlaugh spoke briefly and then the Lord Chief Justice summed up. He damned the histrionic rhetoric of the prosecution (who had called the book ‘indecent, lewd, filthy, bawdy and obscene’ – when it fact it began by outlining the economic theories of Malthus) and gave a fair and just account of proceedings. But when the jury returned, a strange verdict was brought. Two members had remained exceedingly hostile to the case, and because of their refusal to compromise the jury declared: ‘We are unanimously of the opinion that the book in question is calculated to deprave public morals, but at the same time we entirely exonerate the defendants from any corrupt motives in publishing it.’ What this meant was a ‘guilty’ verdict, a fine and six months in jail. But the judge relented, and told the pair they could avoid prison if they agreed not to publish. Besant and Bradlaugh agreed not to publish, and at least won their liberty.

Or so it would seem. The notoriety of the trial allowed Annie’s vindictive ex-husband to make another attempt to take their children away from her. This trial was a done deal, with a judge who was harsh and prejudiced. He was horrified by the idea of a woman defending herself in court and declared that Annie’s daughter ‘would be outcast in this life and damned in the next’. Sole custody was granted to her father and for another fifteen years, Annie Besant saw neither of her children again. The irony that she had fought for every woman’s right not to have more children than she could manage, and lost her own in the process, was clear and bitter to her. She had been punished severely for rising above her assigned social place, and for speaking out against the accepted regulations of her time and culture. But the one thing she did not do – could not do – was abandon the cause. In fact, in order to distract herself from her intolerable loss she threw herself even more deeply into work, and one of the things she did was rewrite that pamphlet on birth control. Since the trial had at least started public discussion and a gradual acceptance of the principle, she published it, and it sold over one hundred thousand copies.

I wanted to write about Annie Besant primarily because I admired her for her courage. She fought and won and lost all at the same time, and went on to have a life that was filled to the end with courageous struggles on behalf of the poor and voiceless. But when Emily asked all her blog friends to talk about health reform, I couldn’t help but feel an analogy between this moment in the history of Victorian England, and the current situation in the States. I don’t know enough about it to talk in any detail, but in both cases, a proposition is made for health reform that looks in theory as if it should benefit large numbers of people. But the proposed change cuts to the heart of a deep and dearly held ideology, a belief of how things should be, how they ought to be organized. Even if people are not entirely happy with the current situation, there is much fear and disinclination surrounding the thought of change. Then as now, ideology deploys stubborn tentacles that dig deep; it  is never lightly held. However angry one might feel at those hostile members of the jury, they were only doing what they thought right and proper. And that’s the problem with big changes when they attack underlying ideological thought – it takes a long time to implement them, as it takes a long time for people to change what they believe. The real problem with Annie Besant’s story here is not that people held differing views, but that what was different was demonised, a punishable offence. Whatever America decides, it will do better to make its decisions with respect and compassion towards all deeply held views, and a willingness to see all sides. At least in America you have the mighty Obama, endowed with both heart and brain, to see you through whatever difficult period of transition lies ahead.

(Details of Annie Besant’s life taken from her biography by Rosemary Dinnage)

14 thoughts on “Important Battles

  1. What an interesting analogy. I also thought of the U.S. but more directly–with states that teach abstinence having the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the developed world. Yes, they have Obama, but the right has rallied around demonizing him in the most outrageous ways accepted by the same conservative types and there are many of them.

  2. Thanks for writing about this case. I’d never heard of it, and it was clearly a very important event. I feel I have been informed on an important piece of history.

  3. Lilian – ah now you clearly know a great deal more about the situation than I do. But I guess to hear that Obama is being demonised does underline the point I’m trying to make, which is that that’s the kind of behaviour analogous to Besant’s detractors, and less acceptable, to my mind, than any kind of ideological rethink.

    Iota – welcome to the reading room and thank you for your kind comment! I didn’t know about it myself until I was reading about Annie Besant. I am in awe of what some people managed to achieve with wholly altruistic intentions.

  4. This is most interesting. The irony of what happened to her with her children is stunning. And yes, you are most thoughtful to note that it is easy now in our time to look down on those who made this decision without understanding the difficulty in context.

    I read an earlier post of yours about your love of French Literature. Just wanted to let you and your readers know that I have a podcast where I am reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Notre Dame de Paris)by Victor Hugo aloud. It is free. You can listen to it on the computer or through Itunes. Found at or just google knitlark lane.

    Thanks again for a great blog.

  5. Boy, I’m torn between thinking, “we’ve come a long way,” and “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” What an interesting case and a great analogy on your part. And I am glad to hear Obama supported as having both heart and brain (which he does). The conservatives over here are doing their (typical) damnedest to paint him in a horrible light, and the media is picking up on it.

  6. What a wonderful post. I feel both educated and cheered on in our struggle for reform in the U.S. and your analysis of how difficult it is to change deeply held beliefs is spot on. Besant sounds like a fascinating woman, the kind of person we need more of in this world. But saying that is asking for a lot as I am not certain I would be willing to sacrifice my life and family for my ideals–a sad thought. But I suppose we each do what we can and the small things add up to big ones.

  7. I’m glad to learn about this brave woman. Thank you, Litlove. I can’t agree, however, that the President is being portrayed in a completely false light. The sad fact is that HR3200 is deeply flawed, may very well bankrupt our country, and will saddle our children and grandchildren with debt they cannot pay. Since I had to read major portions of it, I formed this opinion with at least a working knowledge of the bill. Arguments for the bill usually come from people who have not actually read it. Which is a little like arguing the merits of a piece of literature without reading it, but basing one’s opinion on reviews only.

  8. Not for the first time, I am so glad to be living at a point in history when women are more able and encouraged to speak, but I also agree with Emily, because so much remains the same, and there are still shocking inequalities and miscarriages of justice at every turn. We are as a species deeply suspicious of and resistant to change, I think, and people through the bloodied ages have been threatened into violence against those with the courage of their convictions. As a beneficiary of her wisdom, I salute Annie Besant.

  9. Knitlark – good luck with the Victor Hugo – that’s quite a mammoth read. And thank you for the kind comment.

    Emily – well you nail it there. That’s exactly the issue – human beings can solve problems quite well when they are motivated, but the way they approach the problem-solving doesn’t seem to make much progress in terms of respect, kindliness and understanding. I guess we just have to keep trying!

    Stefanie – she was quite something! But I don’t think she went into it thinking she would ever have to give up her children, and I don’t expect she’d have done what she did if she’d known the cost in advance. I really dislike the way she was punished for speaking out, though. That’s one of the ugliest of human traits – the need to damage people who risk campaigning for the awkward, unfashionable things. You are quite right that all we can do, and the best we can do, is a little bit here and there, whenever we can.

    Grad – I don’t dare get too deep into the issue here, as it would be like someone reading the reviews of the reviews of the reviews! I’m interested in a fair fight, which is something that seems sadly never to happen in the political arena. From the distant perspective of the UK, Obama looks like a good man. But then we all held Bush in such horror by the end of his administration that relief may be a factor! 🙂

    Oh and I wish I knew what needed to be done! It’s not just your site – it’s any blogspot site that uses the comment form that asks you to state which kind of blog you have, wordpress, typepad, etc. Whenever I see that configuration on a blog, I know I’m in trouble. Most I can’t comment on at all, yours I seem able to reach intermittently.

    Doctordi – I know just how you feel. I don’t know that I would have survived well in a society that oppressed women (and as you say, you can still take your pick of those today). Considering that change is the only dependable factor of the universe, you would think we’d get better at it. It is astonishing how resistant we are, and how little we think to learn about accommodating the dynamism of existence.

  10. What a fascinating story! The parallels you point out to today make a whole lot of sense. I can feel the fear people today have at ideas that challenge their beliefs. It’s so hard to put that fear aside and really think about an issue straight on. People often don’t seem to be thinking at all — instead I see angry reaction.

  11. Very thoughtful and interesting post, Litlove. I didn’t know that about Annie and like you, I am horrified that her ex-husband was allowed to take her children away and keep them from her for so long. How devastating, especially in a society that prided itself on women and children belong together – so long as they kept to their place, that is.

    It always comes down to control, doesn’t it? And we get some of the news of the US here in Canada (actually we get a lot of their news!), and so there is some talk of their health system, mostly because we hold ours up as better than theirs, but slowly we are developing a two tier system ‘for those who can pay’ because like your NHS, our wait times are so long. I don’t know what the answer is, but I believe a general health care system has to be a must, and that is where the US fails its citizens (in healthcare, anyway). I will have to go do some more reading before I can say what I think about Obama’s proposal, though.

  12. Dorothy – I do wonder whether fear and anger always go hand in hand, and that when people instantly get angry, it’s because there is something too awful to think about at the basis of their concerns. But I say this, thinking it’s really hard to be courageous about public issues. It’s hard to embrace uncertainty over something like medical care, and so it’s easier to stick with something that’s bad rather than change. We hardly have a perfect system over here, so I empathise!

    Susan – what Annie suffered was a straightforward punishment for having stepped out of line. It’s awful to think that that’s how men functioned back then, but undeniably they did. I think you are very astute to bring it down to control. I don’t know what the answer to health care is, and like you I couldn’t comment directly on what’s happening in the States as I don’t know enough about the details. But it’s a poor place to be failing in a modern world, so it IS right to look at it and see what can be done, if possible.

  13. I’m familiar with Margaret Sanger, but I had not heard of Annie Besant. I only hope it doesn’t take another 30-40 years (as with the legalization of birth control)until there is a realization that things really do need change for the better and it finally happens.

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