Visiting Professor from OSU Discusses Historical Achievements of Annie Besant

On Friday, February 13, students and faculty gathered to hear Associate Professor of History and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Ohio State University Mytheli Sreenivas deliver a lecture on “Reproductive Justice in the Shadow of the Empire.”

To address this topic, Sreenivas recounted the story of Annie Besant, a historical figure who has extensively researched to understand the struggles for birth control in both Britain and India during the 1870s. 

“I want to read the story of Besant’s life and struggle as a window not only into 19th century  reproductive politics, where she was absolutely a pivotal figure, but also for its insights into ongoing struggles around reproductive justice in our contemporary moment,” Sreenivas said.

Besant was an English activist who devoted her life to helping make birth control available and widespread in England and then eventually in India, where overpopulation and poverty were critical issues.

Her activist career began when she and Charles Bradlaugh, a famous English atheist, published a book for married couples detailing methods of preventative contraception and were eventually arrested for their actions. The book was judged “obscene libel,” intended to “corrupt and destroy the morals of people.” Besant’s views were not well-received in her day.

“There is nothing wrong in a natural desire rightly and properly gratified … the notion that pleasure qua pleasure is wrong is an ascetic notion, which is at the base of a large amount of profligacy of the present day … it is no part of its object either to destroy marriage, or to favor profligacy, or to promote promiscuous intercourse; but … to enable people to marry early, and at the same time to avoid those evils which come by over-population,” Besant said.

Besant saw mothers struggling to feed their starving children and saw contraception as a solution, despite societal resistance. Following a severe famine in India, she found another platform on which to promote her goal of making birth control available.

Because birth control was viewed primarily as a way to control population, the story of Besant also raises questions about our current perceptions of birth control in the feminist movement.

“I would argue that paying attention to Besant’s reproductive politics in the 1870s  require that we rethink the history of birth control advocacy and its relationship to feminism and imperialism,” Sreenivas said.

Besant’s story is not necessarily a happy one and has a somewhat unsatisfying end. She eventually lost custody of her five-year old daughter and was judged an “unfit mother” for her views, despite the fact that she cited her daughter’s well-being and future as the impetus for her actions.

Ultimately, Besant traveled to India and renounced her contraceptive advocacy, withdrawing her previous works on contraception. However, this does not change the differences she made early on in her career.

Sreenivas also briefly connected this history to the right wing’s current efforts to undermine access to birth control in modern day.

Students in the audience seemed to find the lecture interesting.

“I was amazed by the fact that Annie Besant sacrificed so much for her cause but, later in life, reneged all of her previous materialistic arguments concerning birth control,” first-year Sydney Loria said. “I thought her perspective on birth control was unique.”

Others found some of the points that she had raised to be unexpected.

“I was surprised that Annie Besant’s work was not intertwined with the feminist movement in the way I had assumed it would have been,” first-year Ashlea Raemer said.