Mary Wollstonecraft: the ‘first feminist’.
At 227a Upper Street sits New Unity, a non-religious church which boasts a unique connection to the women’s suffrage movement. The church, which is now comprised of a majority atheist congregation, can call Mary Wollstonecraft one of its past attendees. Mary Wollstonecraft, born in 1759, was one of England’s ‘first feminists’ and campaigned for the liberation and education of women in the 18th century. Despite the modern architecture of the Upper Street church, the community dates back to 1667 and its Unitarian beliefs forced it to meet in secret.
It’s Wollstonecraft’s rejection of the status-quo and her “dissenting spirit” which the Rev Andy Pakula says motivates New Unity’s willingness to cut against the grain. “If you start out with the core belief that people are good and that everyone has an inherent worth and dignity then how can you say that people should have no say in how they are ruled? And how can you say that women should not have the same rights as men?” The original church has since split into two congregations: one at Newington Green and one on Upper Street and the Upper Street community now defies convention by having a majority ‘non-theist’ congregation, with Mr Pakula himself identifying as an atheist.
The Newington Green site, where Mary Wollstonecraft worshipped, the church community’s original home, was put on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk list in 2016. Last year it was granted much-needed funding for a full renovation of this ‘birthplace of feminism’. It was Richard Price who drew Mary Wollstonecraft to the church after he became minister in 1758. In the same year that he joined the church, he wrote the highly influential ‘Review of the Principal Questions in Morals’ in which he rejected the traditional Christian ideas of original sin and divine punishment. The Newington Green church was visited by titans of American history whom Price knew personally. Among them were Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and John Adams. Ever involved in the American Republican cause, Price issued a pamphlet supporting the revolution in 1776 which sold out in a few days, making him ‘one of the best- known men in England’. It was the subsequent pamphlet war with philosopher Edmund Burke that drew in Mary Wollstonecraft and led her to write Vindication of the Rights of Men, laying the groundwork for her most famous work: Vindication of the Rights of Women.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s connection to Islington, and especially Newington Green, is so important to residents that Roberta Wedge is campaigning to have a statue to her erected. “There has been no big public commemoration. No TV. No Books. No exhibitions,” she says. “I’d argue that Vindication of the Rights of Woman changed the way men and women related to each other just as much as Darwin’s Origin of Species changed the way we relate to the world.”
Although Mr Pakula admits that his church is on the edge of Unitarianism and removed from the faith Wollstonecraft had, he still feels that it can continue the socially progressive work that she started. “Unitarianism fosters a belief in people far more than believing in books and patriarchs and hierarchies. That is the key.” The church’s Heritage Lottery fund grant will also go towards teaching local school children about Islington’s suffrage history. “We want to teach the kids to be challengers of the status quo and to think for themselves. To learn about the history of Mary Wollstonecraft and what she did then, and so think what is it we need to do now.”