Sex, Scandal and Secularism: Annie Besant and the National Secular Society

Sex, Scandal and Secularism: Annie Besant and the National Secular Society

Organisers: National Secular Society
Date: Wednesday April 10th, 7pm – 8pm
Venue: Online, via Zoom
Fee: Free

In 1877, a woman stood on trial for publishing what the prosecution called "a dirty, filthy book". The book was a pamphlet about birth control, and the woman was Annie Besant: feminist, activist, and leading member of the National Secular Society. Together with NSS founder Charles Bradlaugh, Besant made the case for women's rights and free speech – a case they eventually won.

Besant's story is told in a new book by critically acclaimed author and journalist Michael Meyer. In this online talk, he will explain why Besant's life and work was so extraordinary in the context of Victorian England, and why her trial was such a pivotal moment in the history of British civil liberties.

Michael Meyer will be joined by NSS historian Bob Forder, who will give further accounts of Besant's activities in the NSS – and why she is still celebrated as a champion of secularism.

Audience members will have the opportunity to have their questions answered during a Q&A session at the end of the talk.


Michael Meyer has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and many other outlets. A Fulbright scholar, Guggenheim fellow, Berlin Prize and Whiting Award winner, Meyer has also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Cullman Center, MacDowell, and the University of Oxford's Centre for Life-Writing. He is a Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches nonfiction writing.

His new book, A Dirty, Filthy Book: Sex, Scandal and One Woman's Fight in the Victorian Trial of the Century, is available from all major booksellers.

Bob Forder is a member of the NSS council and a retired teacher with a lifelong interest in secularist, radical and freethought history. He aims to ensure future generations are aware of the courage, foresight, and commitment of those who went before us and the great causes they espoused.

Waterstones are offering a discount of £5 off the recommended retail price for A Dirty, Filthy Book, exclusive to our subscribers and supporters. To claim your discount, use the code "FILTHY" at the checkout. This code is valid for online purchases only at, and it will expire on 31st May. The book is available at Waterstones here.