Annie Besant has played an enormously big role in mixed gender Freemasonry, so naturally she features frequently in texts about the subject. Still, Andrew Prescott thought it necessary to write a fairly detailed biography of her.
Besant was born from not too wealthy parents. A “wealthy spinster” saw to it that she got her education though. Besant was a devout child and grew up as an independent young lady. When she married she was forced into the typical role of a woman in that time. She did not want to conform and was clear about that. Then she lost her daughter and therewith her faith. That her husband didn’t like, so Besant decided to leave him.
Besant met Charles Bradlaugh an early freethinker who made Besant decide she was an atheist. Bradlaugh let Besant write for his periodical National Reformer. She also proved to be a gifted orator. Bradlaugh and Besant started a publishing house, but the nature of the books resulted in a lawsuit in which Besant defended herself.
Contrary to Bradlaugh Besant started to develop socialist ideas and she became involved in the women’s rights movement. Socialists were too materialistic for her, though, and then she ran into The Secret Doctrine of Helena Blavatsky. Impressed by the massive work, Besant sought contact and the two immediately got along well. In no-time Besant had a high position in the Theosophical Society and its Inner Circle. She moved to Adyar, India, were the headquarters of the Theosophical Society still can be found. There Besant got involved in the movement of the freedom of the Indian people. India was a British colony at the time.
In Adyar Besant started to cooperate with the controversial Charles Leadbeater. Both saw the new Messiah in the boy Jiddu Krishnamurti.
It looks like her acquaintance with Freemasonry (about which later) triggered projects in which ceremonies were a part. An organisation around Krishnamurti arose (Order of the Star in the East) and she helped the Liberal Catholic Church.
Besant also met James Wedgwood who would initiate Leadbeater into co-Masonry in 1915. Wedgwood and Leadbeater would rework the rituals of the British federation of Le Droit Humain and bring in many more spiritual(istic) influences. Leadbeater was in contact with the “head of all true Freemasons” and “the Master of the Seventh Ray, the Count of Saint Germain alias Prince Ragoczy”. Besant supported it all.
It wasn’t all well between Besant and Leadbeater though. A misjudgment in her political activities (which Leadbeater disagreed with to begin with) brought problems for Besant, both in her home country (India) and in Le Droit Humain. The ‘case Krishnamurti’ also drove the two apart.
In the period described, also the movement for the rights of women came up. In Boomsbury, UK, a new building for the Theosophical Society was to be built. In the UK it is not uncommon that the laying of the first stone happens with a big parade in which local organisations show themselves. Besant toured the town with a few brothers and sisters in full regalia. For most people this was the first time the saw a female Freemason and the event raised positive attention. This was a fairly daring step, but Besant was not afraid to shake up the public and the organisations she was active in.
Besant had a lot of interests and activities. Sometimes they seem to contradict or change a lot. Even though some Theosophists saw Besant’s Freemasonry as a side-project, Prescott suggests that it was actually cement of Besant’s life. Indeed, when her Masonic position threatened because of her political misstep in India, she wrote that without Freemasonry she would be crippled.
Besant fought for a worldwide brotherhood. Freemasonry was the way to achieve that and other projects to assist.
That Besant heavily marked mixed gender Freemasony (or “joint Freemasonry” in her own words) is obvious. Initially Besant was critical towards Freemasonry. It looks like it that Bradlaugh’s experience with British Freemasonry made her conclude that Freemasonry is a charity organisation in which banquets are the most important activity. Besant claims that in 1895 she was asked to join (perhaps otherwise she wouldn’t be the first British female Freemason), but refused. In 1902 she was initiated in lodge number 1. Soon she started a lodge in England, Human Duty no.6, but not before she saw to it that this would not be a “secular” lodge like the first lodges of Le Droit Humain. There would be a “Grand Architect of the Universe” and Besant would provide fitting rituals.
Many lodges would follow and later Wedgwood and Leadbeater would rework the rituals.
The British federation of Le Droit Humain did start to show cracks under Besant’s leadership. People who saw too big Theosophic influences split to found Honourable Fraternity of Antient Masonry in 1908. After a big fight an an official investigation another split-off took place and Order of Ancient and Accepted Masonry was founded. In spite of everything there was no breech with the Supreme Council in Paris.
Besant had many sides. Some people think some sides of her were irreconcilable, but Prescott is of another opinion. A fact is that Besant, almost singlehandedly, brought a massive rise for mixed gender Freemasonry, but also several splits. And besides the massive amounts of time she must have invested in Le Droit Humain she could also spend massive amounts of time in the Theosophical Society and many, many other activities.