One of the consequences of marriage that Besant describes is the wife’s loss of control over her body. She writes that “no rape can be committed by a husband on a wife; the consent given in marriage is held to cover life, […] no offence is committed in the eye of the law, for the wife is the husband’s property, and by marriage she has lost the right of control over her own body” (13-14). Besant also notes that men are legally granted the ability to beat their wives as corporal punishment, a particularly cruel practice. Besant’s concerns over married women’s wellbeing, particularly the danger they were in of rape and assault, responded to the suffering of many women in the late 19th century. Furthermore, Besant’s work in marriage reform shows the need for women to have autonomy and the ability to move both freely and safely.
Besant also sought to allow women more autonomy through republishing Charles Knowlton’s 1832 book The Fruits of Philosophy: Or the Private Companion of Young People with Charles Bradlaugh in 1877. Besant met Charles Bradlaugh through a mutual colleague and her involvement in the Nationalist Secular Society and the National Reformer, of which Bradlaugh was the founder and editor respectively. The two knew that the controversial book would draw public outcry: in the preface to The Fruits of Philosophy, they defend their choice to republish the book for the sake of “free discussion” (6). Upon its republication, The Fruits of Philosophy went through several legal suits regarding its alleged obscenity for providing information on the biology of genital organs, reproduction, and birth control. Besant and Bradlaugh were arrested for violating the Obscene Publication Act of 1857, but they were acquitted on two separate occasions (1877, 1878) for not publishing the book with immoral intent.
Besant believed that women should have access to information about their bodies and have a role in family planning. The Fruits of Philosophy contains comprehensive information about female genital organs and menstruation and even a method to prevent menstrual cramps. As Besant likely recognized, Knowlton presented information likely not widely or publicly available to young women in the 19th century. Knowlton also includes theories regarding conception and contraception, notably discussing sterilization. In the preface to Besant and Bradlaugh’s republication of The Fruits of Philosophy, they promote contraception in such a way that suggests a tendency toward eugenics targeting the lower classes. They write, “We advocate scientific checks to population, because, so long as poor men have large families, pauperism is a necessity, and from pauperism grow crime and disease” (8). Addressing Besant’s interests, they do acknowledge that “[i]t is not only the hard-working classes which are concerned in this question […] The woman’s health is sacrificed and her life embittered from the same cause” (8-9). While Besant worked throughout her lifetime to grant oppressed people self-autonomy, it is valuable to consider that she, as a White woman, assumed that she could speak with authority and impose her own vision of progress on others.
Nevertheless, Besant echoed the voices of women in abusive marriages in the 19th century, and her work continues to reflect women’s claim to self-autonomy and liberty today. In Marriage: As It Was, As It Is, and As It Should Be, Besant urges her readers to prioritize change over social taboo, writing, “Reforms have never been accomplished by Reformers who had not the courage of their opinions” (36). The book and others were published on both sides of the Atlantic, and the Library Company of Philadelphia currently holds an 1878 copy of The Law of Populations: Its Consequences and Its Bearing upon Human Conduct and Morals, an 1879 copy of Marriage: As It Was, As It Is, and As It Should Be, and an 1890 copy of Knowlton’s The Fruits of Philosophy that was edited by Besant and Bradlaugh. Her words are particularly resonant today, as movements within the United States look to reform systemically oppressive institutions.
Lydia Shaw, Franklin & Marshall Class of 2022