Annie Woods was born in London on 1 October 1847. She had an unhappy childhood, undoubtedly partly due to her father's death when she was five. Annie's mother persuaded her friend Ellen Marryat, sister of the writer Frederick Marryat, to take responsibility for her daughter and Ellen ensured that Annie received a good education.
In 1867, Annie married Frank Besant, a clergyman, and they had two children. But Annie's increasingly anti-religious views led to a legal separation in 1873. Besant became a member of the National Secular Society and also of the Fabian Society, the noted socialist organisation.
In the 1870s, Besant and Charles Bradlaugh edited the weekly National Reformer, which advocated advanced ideas on topics such as trade unions, national education, womens' right to vote, and birth control. For their pamphlet on birth control the pair were brought to trial for obscenity, but were subsequently acquitted.
Besant supported a number of workers' demonstrations for better working conditions. In 1888 she helped organise a strike of the female match workers. The strike eventually led to bosses significantly improving their working situation.
She also became interested in Theosophy, a religious movement based on Hindu ideas of karma and reincarnation. She later became the groups leader and travelled the world spreading their beliefs.
Besant first visited India in 1893 and later settled there, becoming involved in the Indian nationalist movement. In 1916 she established the Indian Home Rule League, of which she became president. She was also a leading member of the Indian National Congress.
Besant died in India on 20 September 1933.