View Full Version : Annie Besant: Orator, Activist, Mystic

Monday, June 27th, 2005, 08:34 AM

Susan Dobra

Annie Besant tells the story, in her Autobiography, of her first experience as an orator. The year was 1873; Besant was a young woman of 24. She was in her husband's empty church in Sibsey, England, practicing on the organ, when she decided to ascend the pulpit, just to see what it felt like. Taking her place behind it, she began to deliver a sermon, imagining a church-full of rapt listeners. Effortlessly she held forth, her voice echoing in full tones, enlarging her words and endowing them with magnificence:

I shall never forget the feeling of power and delight--but especially of power--that came upon me as I sent my voice ringing down the aisles, and the passion in me broke into balanced sentences and never paused for musical cadence or for rhythmical expression. All I wanted then was to see the church full of upturned faces, alive with throbbing sympathy, instead of the dreary emptiness of silent pews. And as though in a dream the solitude was peopled, and I saw the listening faces and the eager eyes, and as the sentences flowed unbidden from my lips and my own tones echoed back to me from the pillars of the ancient church, I knew of a verity that the gift of speech was mine, and that if ever--and then it seemed so impossible!--if ever the chance came to me of public work, this power of melodious utterance should at least win hearing for any message I had to bring. (98)

Before her life was through, Besant would bring her message to thousands. Her talent for oratory would take her across three continents, through a series or personal, political, and, finally, spiritual transformations. She would be publicly lauded for her "sparkling wit and sarcasm" and her "matchless power of reasoning and eloquence" (Summers) and called the "greatest of women orators--a flaming spirit ever questing with unquenchable ardour after truth" (John Haynes Homes, qtd. in Nethercot 444). Mohandas Gandhi himself would say of her, "I would have been more than satisfied if I could have touched the hem of [her] garment" (Aidyar).

In the years following her revelation in the pulpit at Sibsey, Besant became well known throughout England for her radical and often inflammatory ideas, scandalizing the Victorian public more than a few times. As the wife of an Anglican minister, she was excoriated when she conspicuously left the Church (and the marriage) to laud what she had come to see as the higher morality of atheism; she spoke out on feminist issues and printed and distributed pamphlets on birth control as a Freethinker; she organized labor strikes for working girls as a Fabian socialist. She established a program of serving breakfasts to impoverished schoolchildren as a member of the London School Board. And when, in 1889, she embraced the tenets of Theosophy, with its mystical and occult teachings that were heavily influenced by Hindu spirituality, she delighted some--such as the young Gandhi--and challenged the tolerance of many others. But she maintained a high public profile and remained devoted to service throughout her life. Her social activism was augmented by her inspiring oratory and scathing pen, and her many lectures and writings made her one of the most prolific and exceptional people in a prolific and exceptional age.

So why do we hear so little today about Annie Besant? Why has she not taken her place in the history of rhetoric as one of its finest practitioners? Some would say that Besant's conversion to Theosophy and her association with the disreputable Madame Blavatsky cast enough doubt on her rationality to ostracize her from serious consideration. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was a Russian-born adventuress and mystic who co-founded, along with Colonel Henry Olcott, the Theosophical Society in 1875. Though Olcott was its president, the tenets of the society were based almost exclusively on her esoteric writings, especially Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. At the time of Besant's conversion, a considerable amount of skepticism was being directed toward Blavatsky. The influential Society for Psychical Research had recently charged her with blatant fraud and published their lengthy proceedings against her. Suspicion of Blavatsky on the basis of those charges continues in the popular mind today, although recent investigations of the matter may vindicate her (Kunz). But more than one of Besant's biographers have expressed bafflement at her swift and unequivocal acceptance of Blavatsky and her doctrine; and the occult air of Blavatsky's teachings, which Besant embraced and later expounded upon, may be at least partly responsible for Besant's relative obscurity and the lack of serious consideration of her as a rhetorician.

But another reason may be that Besant is not a rhetorical theorist, per se. Canonical histories of rhetoric valorize rhetorical theory, done almost exclusively by males, usually from the class of the educated elite. Patricia Bizzell remarks upon this in her recent essay in the pages of this journal, "Opportunities for Feminist Research in the History of Rhetoric." She says that when she and Bruce Herzberg were researching their (much appreciated) anthology, The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical to Contemporary Rhetoric, they were dismayed to find such a "traditional `rhetorical tradition,' which pretty much excluded women, people of color and anyone without an elite education" (50). Now, I think it's pretty clear that there is a connection between the tradition's focus on the educated elite and its valorization of theorists. The abstraction of theory is mostly associated with formal education. Women, who were for the most part denied opportunities for formal schooling until the end of the last century, had no reason to write theory--they had no context for it, and would have been unlikely to have found an audience. But they did practice the art of rhetoric and reflect on their practice. Bizzell and Herzberg implicitly acknowledge the legitimacy of work of this kind by including Christine de Pisan and Laura Cereta, neither of whom where rhetorical theorists, strictly speaking, in their section on Renaissance rhetoric in that anthology. Carol Blair and Mary Kahl recommend revising the history of rhetorical theory at least partly by counting as theory any reflection on practice. And Andrea Lunsford, in her introduction to the long-awaited collection of essays on women rhetoricians, Reclaiming Rhetorica, acknowledges the need to look beyond the constraints of canonical definitions of rhetoric to include "multiple rhetorics":

Taken together, the essays in Reclaiming Rhetorica suggest that the realm of rhetoric has been almost exclusively male not because women were not practicing rhetoric . . . but because the tradition has never recognized the forms, strategies, and goals used by many women as "rhetorical." (6)

Systematic rhetorical theory is not a necessary feature for inclusion in the canon as it stands, anyway. Think of Plato's texts on rhetoric, or Quintillian's--what are the features that they have in common?

Monday, June 27th, 2005, 08:34 AM
Bizzell, in the essay I just mentioned, delineates three approaches to feminist research in rhetoric that those of us doing this work might consider. The first is to do feminist critiques of the canon, acting as what Judith Fetterly has called a "resisting reader." The second is to look for women who have done work similar to the traditionally acknowledged rhetorical treatises and argue for their place in the canon. The third approach is to look for kinds of work, done by women, that "would not have been traditionally considered as rhetoric, and to frame arguments redefining the whole notion of rhetoric in order to include this new work by women" (51).

Redefining what is to be granted the designation "rhetoric" is a challenge that may problematize the entire project of feminist revisionism. Barbara Biesecker questions the current practice of writing individual women into the history of rhetoric. Warning against what Adrienne Rich has called "female tokenism," Biesecker objects to what she calls an "affirmative action approach" to revising rhetorical history; its "underhanded perpetuation of `cultural supremacy,'" she says, "signifies nothing less than the power of the center to affirm certain voices and to discount others" (143) By continuing to celebrate individual accomplishment, Biesecker argues,

we will have not yet begun to challenge the underlying logic of canon formation and the uses to which it has been put that have written the rhetorical contributions of collective women into oblivion. (144)

She takes to task Karlyn Kohrs Campbell's Man Cannot Speak For Her--and by implication a large part of Reclaiming Rhetorica as well--on the grounds that "a feminist rewriting of the history of Rhetoric that founds itself on the mandate to secure a place in the canon for `great women speakers' is simply not enough" (144).

Biesecker proposes that the post-structuralist problematizing of subjectivity should lead us to ask new questions, to "forge a new storying of our tradition." Drawing on the work of Derrida and on Spivak's reading of him, Biesecker suggests that, rather than asking "who is speaking," we might ask, "what play of forces made it possible for a particular speaking subject to emerge?" (148).

Biesecker's difficult argument traverses Foucault's archaeology, the interdependence of resistance and power, the limitations of Foucault in theorizing resistance, and the utility of his metaphors of space before returning to Derrida to articulate the possibility of resistance through a redefined techne. Her purpose is to push beyond the Foucaultian insight that "subjects are effects of their sociopolitical, historical, economic, and cultural contexts" (154) by conceptualizing a form of resistance to those contexts that is not necessarily the result of intentional practice by individual subjects. Redefining techne as

a kind of "getting through" or ad hoc "making do" by a subject whose resources are necessarily located in and circumscribed by the field within which she operates, but whose enunciation, in always and already exceeding and falling short of its intending subject, harbors within it the possibility of disrupting, fragmenting, and altering the horizon of human action out of which it emerges (155),

Biesecker wants to create the possibility of scrutinizing collective action--as opposed to individual practice--that creates social transformation through unintentional, everyday, seemingly passive speech acts. By "radically contextualizing" such acts, she suggests, we can begin to subvert the "ideology of individualism" in the history of rhetoric and "address the real fact that different women, due to their various positions in the social structure, have available to them different rhetorical possibilities and, similarly, are constrained by different rhetorical limits" (157).

My purpose in this essay is not entirely within Biesecker's project, obviously, since I do intend to make a case for the inclusion in the history of rhetoric of an individual woman. Biesecker acknowledges that such work should continue, but offers a way to read these stories differently, by asking "what play of forces made it possible for a particular speaking subject to emerge?" and by looking beyond the obvious accomplishments of the individual to the unintended effects of their actions and the actions of those complicitous with them. In reading Annie Besant into the history of rhetoric in this way, I want to argue that she should be included not just because she was a powerful orator, although she was, and not just because she reflectedon her rhetorical practice, although she did, but also because a significant result of her speaking and writing was to effectively challenge the hegemony of the dominant political, economic, and religious discourses of British Victorian colonialism. In so doing, her work exemplifies a resistance to oppressive ideology through the power of language--a radical, ethical rhetoric.

Monday, June 27th, 2005, 08:35 AM
As a young girl, Annie Wood had been a fervently religious young girl, educated by a generous aunt and later a stern but kind governess. She had a traditional education for a Victorian girl, reading Spencer and Dante and the Bible. She was passionate about Milton. At age 20, she was coaxed into a loveless marriage to the Reverend Frank Besant, by all accounts a dull, unimaginative and sometimes violent man. Before long, her active intellect led her to question some of the most basic tenets of Christianity, creating an intolerable hypocrisy in her role as minister's wife. She began writing pamphlets expressing her doubts, which were published anonymously by Thomas Scott, an early Freethinker, and the Reverend Charles Voysey, a dissenter of the Established Church. Eventually, her conscience having kept her from participating fully in her husband's church services and the marriage being under increasing strain, she moved out, taking their two children with her. Thus, she began her rhetorical career at the cost of great personal sacrifice and pain, the price of having the temerity to question the dominant religious discourse.

Besant continued to write and to work out her increasingly radical ideas. Soon she had joined the National Secularist Society, and as a writer for their publication, The National Reformer, was espousing atheism as a positive and moral doctrine. In the chapter entitled "Atheism as I Knew it and Taught it" in her Autobiography, Besant explains her belief as follows:

Proceeding to search whether any idea of God was attainable, I came to the conclusion that evidence of the existence of a conscious Power was lacking and that the ordinary proofs offered were inconclusive; that we could grasp phenomena and no more. . . .As his knowledge of the universe is extremely limited and very imperfect, the Atheist declines either to deny or to affirm anything with regard to modes of existence of which he knows nothing. Further, he refuses to believe anything concerning that of which he knows nothing and affirms that that which can never be the subject of knowledge ought never to be the object of belief. (123-25)

From the extremes of her early devotion to Christ to an intense admiration for the champions of Freethought, Besant's fervent search for truth now led her increasingly to the public expression of her ideas. Through her association with the National Secular Society, she met a man who was to become her lifelong friend and partner in social activism, Freethinker Charles Bradlaugh. Bradlaugh was not only President of the National Secular Society but later was elected to Parliament, where he was an important voice for labor and social reform. Together, they embarked on a career of political and social reform for England and its empire, which brought them continually into conflict with public opinion and the law.

It was around this time that Besant began her heralded career as an orator. Public speaking was, she confirmed, a natural talent for her. Her first public lecture, "The Political Status of Women," was delivered in 1874. Over the course of her career as a Freethinker, socialist, feminist, and Theosophist, she gave hundreds of lectures--233 in 1893 alone (Nethercot First Five 389). Her powerful eloquence was remarked upon throughout the English-speaking world, even--and often especially--by those who disagreed completely with her ideas. Crowds would pack halls of over a thousand and spill out onto the streets of Glascow, London, and, when she spoke at the Parliament of World Religions in 1893, Chicago.

Besant's first clash with the law was over the distribution of Charles Knowlton's pamphlet on birth control, The Fruits of Philosophy, a rather tame tract by modern standards, but one which challenged Victorian obscenity laws. She and Bradlaugh collaborated on an orchestrated defiance of those laws, even inviting the police to the sale and sending word to the authorities afterwards about where they would be staying. Bradlaugh and Besant were arrested. Bradlaugh, who had studied law and was well-known as the "people's lawyer," defended himself in the ensuing legal proceedings, as did Besant. The verdict was that the book was indeed "calculated to deprave public morals," but the jury "entirely exonerate[d] the defendants from any corrupt motive in publishing it" (Nethercot First Five 124). Besant commented that this amounted to saying, "Not guilty but don't do it again." The pamphlet eventually sold over 133,000 copies (Nethercot 116-25). Besant later published her own pamphlet on birth control, The Law of Population: Its Consequences and Its Bearing upon Human Conduct and Morals. This, according to historian Bruce Campbell, makes her the first woman ever to advocate contraception publicly (102).

When London University decided to admit women, in 1878, Besant sought admission, prevailing upon one of its professors of science, Dr. Edward B. Aveling, a new N.S.S. member, to teach matriculation courses in South Kensington. By this means, Besant earned advanced certificates as a science teacher in eight subjects. But her pursuit of formal education was not without obstacles. When she and Charles Bradlaugh's daughter applied to take a course in botany at University College, according to Besant, "we were refused, I for my sins, and she only for being her father's daughter" (Autobiography 224). She also reports that Sir Henry Tyler of the House of Commons "attacked the Education Department for accepting me, and actually tried to prevent the Government grant being paid to the Hall of Science Schools because Dr. Aveling, the Misses Bradlaugh, and myself were unbelievers in Christianity" (224). She lectured at the Hall of Science in London regularly throughout the 1880s on physics, physiology, biology and electricity. Like all Secularists, she rejected everything mystical or spiritualistic, professing publicly her skepticism about the growing Spiritualist movement and the newly formed Theosophical Society.

After Bradlaugh's election to the House of Commons and the ensuing furor over the swearing of the oath, Besant turned her interest to the growing Socialist movement, which she found "intellectually complete and ethically beautiful" (Besant Autobiography 274). In 1885, she joined the Fabian Society, along with George Bernard Shaw, Beatrice and Sidney Webb and Hubert Burrows. As a Socialist, she helped to organize the Matchmakers' Union and other trade unions, taking on the cause especially in defense of working girls; she marched in the streets for labor reform and free speech; and she agitated for free public education and meals for needy students as a member of the London School Board.

These activities did not go unnoticed by Madame Blavatsky and her growing Theosophical Society. Blavatsky had commented on Besant's doings in the monthly magazine, The Theosophist, as far back as 1882, venturing the opinion that Besant, though an unbeliever,

yet speaks and writes such sensible and wise things, that we might almost say that one of her speeches or chapters contain more matter to benefit humanity than would equip a modern trance-speaker for an entire oratorical career. (qtd. in Besterman 130)

Blavatsky apparently kept an active interest in Besant's activities in the ensuing years. Besant, meanwhile, was starting to yearn for "a new Brotherhood, in which the service of Man should take the place erstwhile given to the service of God" (Our Corner, February, 1888, qtd. in Besant, Autobiography 299). When, in 1889, she was given a copy of Blavatsky's obscure tome, The Secret Doctrine, she experienced something of an epiphany:

As I turned over page after page the interest became absorbing; but how familiar it seemed; how my mind leapt forward to presage the conclusions, how natural it was, how coherent, how subtle, and yet how intelligible. I was dazzled, blinded by the light in which disjointed facts were seen as parts of a mighty whole, and all my puzzles, riddles, problems, seemed to disappear. The effect was partially illusory in one sense, in that they all had to be slowly unravelled later, the brain gradually assimilating that which the swift intuition had grasped as truth. But the light had been seen, and in a flash of illumination I knew that the weary search was over and the very Truth was found. (Autobiography 310)

Requesting an introduction to the author, Besant was taken to the home of Madame Blavatsky and soon converted to Theosophy. From that day in 1889 until her death in 1933, she remained a devout Theosophist.

Monday, June 27th, 2005, 08:36 AM
Besant's life took several more political and social turns before it was over: she was instrumental in the Indian Home Rule movement, becoming the only non-Indian ever and, until 1925, the only woman elected as president of the Indian National Congress; her Home Rule Bill, though it was the cause of great debate and was partially responsible for her parting of the ways with Gandhi, was later used as a model for Indian independence from Great Britain. She founded a college which later became the nucleus of the Hindu University; she spread Theosophy to its height of more than 45,000 members on five continents (Campbell 128); and she was instrumental in the education and patronage of the spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti.

But such a varied and illustrious career alone doesn't qualify Besant for a place in the history of rhetoric except insofar as it was largely accomplished through oratory. As a practicing rhetorician rather than a theorizing one, Besant's claim to a place in our canon would be that her speeches (and books) show a sensitive awareness of the needs and expectations of her audiences and rhetorical situations; her remarks about oratory show us that she reflected on this rhetorical perspective. For example, when speaking on behalf of the Theosophical Society to the Parliament of World Religions, held in conjunction with the Columbian World's Fair in Chicago in 1893, she expounded on the spiritual duty of service to humanity and the "heights to which its daily practice may at length conduct the human soul" (anthologized in The Spiritual Life 94). After delineating the kind of service appropriate to what Theosophists called "the physical plane" (right livelihood, care of the body, simple living), she moves on to describe service on the "mental plane":

Not only on the physical plane, the lowest, is service to be sought. On the mental plane humanity can be served far more efficaciously than on the physical plane. Do you think that you cannot do service on the mental plane, that the mental plane is for great thinkers who publish some works that revolutionize thought? Do you think work on the mental plane is for the speaker who reaches thousands where you can reach but units? It is not so. Great thinkers, whether writers or speakers, do not have such enormous influence as you may imagine by outer appearances. True, their work is great, but have you ever been struck by the source of the speaker's power, the source of strength with which they move a crowd? It does not lie in themselves, not in their power, but in the power they are to evoke from the men and women they address, from the human hearts they awaken. It is the energy of the audience and not the speaker in the tide of the speech. Orators are but the tongues that put into language the thoughts in the hearts of the people who are not able to articulate them. The thoughts are already there, and when some tongue puts them into speech, when other inarticulate senses take the force of the spoken word, then people think it is oratory. It is their own hearts that move them, and it is their own voices--inarticulate in the people--which makes the power that rings from land to land. (97)

This is unorthodox rhetorical theory, to be sure, but it is clearly a reflection on the art of oratory.

Besant's focus in this passage on "service" in the "mental plane" gives us a window into the larger body of her theosophical thought, which places the power of oratory within the category of service to what she would have called "mankind." Hers is an ethical pedagogy, not unlike Quintillian's in that way, in which she delineates the responsibility of the individual to the "brotherhood of man." In her book Theosophy, published in 1912, Besant explicates the major components of her belief system. It is an exquisitely eloquent and concise handbook, touching on all the essential themes of Theosophy in an intelligible form. The text's intention appears to be simply to introduce Theosophy to a reader unfamiliar with its tenets. Closer analysis reveals an intention to legitimate this belief system by placing it within the context of all the great structures of human thought and belief: science, morality, art, philosophy, and religion. The book makes a bid for consideration on the same terms with these more orthodox disciplines. But what Besant seems not to have intended--at least not originally--is that Theosophy would also be a key instrument with which to challenge the colonial hegemony of British rule in India. For Besant, Theosophy was the next step in the evolution of the human intellect and spirit, encompassing and surpassing the disciplines with which Besant compares it.

She begins with an etymology:

Theosophy is derived from two Greek words--Theos, God; Sophia, Wisdom--and is therefore God-Wisdom, Divine Wisdom. Any dictionary will give as its meaning: "A claim to a direct knowledge of God and of Spirits," a definition which is not inaccurate, though it is scanty and affords but a small idea of all that is covered by the word, either historically or practically. (9)

In this way, Besant implies that Theosophy is not a passing fad or a new idea; it has an ancient pedigree. She goes on, then, to delineate this pedigree by putting Theosophy, in its "religious aspect," within the context of "all true Religion," the object of which is the "direct knowledge of God":

This inner, or esoteric, side of religion is found in all the great faiths of the world, more or less explicitly declared, but always existing as the heart of the religion, beyond all the dogmas which form the exoteric side. (9-10)

She connects the "Mysteries" of all the major religions of the world, citing early Christianity, Islamic Mysteries, "taught among the Sufis," the Buddhist "Sangha," and the Hindu esoteric teachings as evidence that all the world's religions have a mystical aspect, many of the features of which she claims are similar to one another. She concludes from this that all religions come from a common source of Divine Wisdom. Theosophy recognizes this unity, and therefore embraces all religions. In this way, Besant connects her subject matter to the most cherished traditions of her audience while at the same time validating the beliefs that were slowly being eradicated by the British Empire.

The book's ostensible argument is that Theosophy is a study of human nature in its many aspects that encompasses all the world's religions, as well as its science, ethics, aesthetics and philosophy. The body of the book, then, systematically explains each of these "activities" as an aspect of Theosophy, ending with chapters on social problems, "systems and worlds," and the Theosophical Society. The Introduction lays the groundwork for this structure by moving from the "primary meaning" of Theosophy--the mystical experience common to all religions--to a "secondary meaning":

Theosophy, in a secondary sense . . . is the body of doctrine, obtained by separating the beliefs common to all religions from the peculiarities, specialties, rites, ceremonies and customs which mark off one religion from another; it presents these common truths as a consensus of world-beliefs. (12)

By this definition, which Besant says has been in usage since the third century after Christ, Theosophy becomes "an eclectic system, which accepts truth wherever it is to be found, and cares little for its outer trappings" (12-13). Widening the embrace of Theosophy in this manner effectively enlarges its area of study to include all the disciplines upon which the later chapters expound.

Besant argues later in the book that love and virtue spring from a common source in human nature: the universal pursuit of happiness. Love unites, creating an expansion of life that results in happiness. Virtue is love "universalized":

Outside the family, when men enter into relations with the general public, the attitude taken spontaneously in the family by Love must be reproduced outside deliberately by Virtue. (46)

Since human beings are all related to each other to the extent that we live in a shared society, virtue manifests itself as duty, a duty to "give each related person his due," being thereby "a source of social unity." Truth, for Besant, is both a duty and a virtue, in that it is the intellectual equivalent of love. Truth and love together, therefore, "should be the foundation of Morality" (46), as they are two aspects of God, the "one omnipresent Life" that Theosophy is based upon.

Besant comes back over and over in her theosophical writings to the idea of "universal brotherhood" and the spiritual obligation of service. It is this feature of her thought that binds her early work with the Freethinkers and Fabians to her seemingly reckless conversion to Theosophy. Janet Oppenheim, writing in History Today, argues that Besant's early religious fervor and her lifelong commitment to human perfectibility combined with her feminist aspirations are what led her to embrace Theosophy. And Catherine Lowman Wessinger argues in Annie Besant and Progressive Messianism (1847-1943) that

Annie Besant's varied careers were motivated by a typically Victorian belief in progress and desire to ameliorate the social conditions. This eventually led her to develop a pattern of ultimate concern that took the form of a progressive messianism with pre-millinarian and post-millenial elements. (307)

Another way to say this is that Annie Besant was one of the first "New Age" proponents, with a resulting social conscience that bound together her seemingly disconnected life's works. Our supreme duty, she believed, is to serve:

Only by service is the fullness of life made possible; the whole of the universe is yoked to the service of mankind. Every individual should be pledged to the service of humanity. . . . That should be the object of life, the goal of evolution. (The Spiritual Life 94)

For Besant, her oratory was only one facet of this service. As a speaker, she believed that her task was to articulate what was in her audience's hearts already, and to move them to action. Seen as a dimension of her systematically articulated belief in the tenets of Theosophy, especially in its concern with the evolution of the individual soul (a theme which she expounds in many of her writings and speeches), Besant's reflection on her rhetorical practice becomes a part of an ethical rhetoric addressing the whole person, throughout the course of many lifetimes.

Like Quintillian, Besant was an educator, focusing on the development of virtue in her listeners. Not only was she an educator in the formal sense--her Central Hindu College in Benares was lauded as having an important role in the revival movement of true Hinduism and the "regeneration of India" from colonial Anglocism and she wrote a series of textbooks with respected Sanskritist Dr. Bhagavan Das designed to renew interest in the Vedas among young boys and girls--but her oratory is from beginning to end didactic, urging her listeners to take up the challenge of service to their brothers and sisters in the human family. In fact, in a recent book about feminism and the occult sciences in Victorian literature and society, Diana Basham argues that Besant embraced Theosophy so readily because in it she could become the archetypal "occult mother" on a world scale, whose mission was nothing less than to transform the British Empire.

The feminist revision of history is an important project, and I hope this contribution to it has not only made a case for Annie Besant's inclusion in that history, but also for a closer scrutiny of what the criteria have been and could be for inclusion in the rhetorical canon. We are at a rich moment in the history of rhetoric, a moment in which the very concept of rhetoric and what it means to be a rhetorician are being scrutinized and re-defined in various, conficting, and provocative ways.

source (http://www.csuchico.edu/phil/sdobra_mat/besantpaper.html)