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A new future for the birthplace of feminism

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03 March 2021

A new future for the birthplace of feminism

Wednesday 3 March • Viewing time: 1 minute

Professor Clare Midgley has preserved a landmark of feminist history for generations to come.

Did you know that some of the first feminist texts were written over two centuries ago?

Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, against the backdrop of the French Revolution and anti-slavery movement. This groundbreaking work challenged the patriarchy by demanding equal education for men and women. 

For the last decade, Professor Clare Midgley has been at the centre of the campaign to honour Wollstonecraft and protect the nonconformist church in London where she developed her radical ideas.

Who was Mary Wollstonecraft?

Mary Wollstonecraft was a writer and intellectual whose influence on politics, philosophy and literature can still be felt to this day. 

In works such as Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and A Vindication on the Rights of Woman, she argued that women were not intellectually inferior to men, they simply lacked a ‘rational’, non-domestic education. She laid out one of the first arguments for women’s equality and set the stage for the suffragette movement around a century later.

She died aged 38, shortly after giving birth to her second daughter Mary, who would later become famous for writing the gothic masterpiece Frankenstein.

Early feminist thinker Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft is often called the 'mother of feminism'.

The wider struggle

The campaigns of early feminist pioneers like Wollstonecraft went hand-in-hand with other political causes of the era like the abolition movement. Professor Midgley’s research has helped bring this to a wider audience.

For example, she demonstrated how the Eighteenth Century feminists linked the rights of British women to their opposition to colonial slavery. They also engaged women with abolition by making it relatable to the domestic sphere — leading successful boycotts of slave-made products like sugar. 

In other studies, Professor Midgley highlighted the differences between the British and American anti-slavery campaigns, and wrote the programme note for a Royal Shakespeare Company production about the struggle for abolition, The Whip.

She also analysed the key role of religious groups in Eighteenth Century radicalism — in particular, Quakers and Unitarians.

At the Newington Green Unitarian Church

Wollstonecraft formed her ideas at the Newington Green Unitarian Church in North London.

She joined a radical community led by the Welsh nonconformist preacher Richard Price, who was at the centre of the global movement against slavery, colonialism, the subjugation of women and monarchy. He had considerable influence and connections — welcoming visitors including the American founding fathers Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin. 

In 1790, Wollstonecraft anonymously published A Vindication of the Rights of Men, attacking hereditary peerage. This work escalated the so-called 'pamphlet war' sparked by the French Revolution, which Wollstonecraft and Price both passionately supported. 

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was her next work, this time published boldly in her own name. She argued that, as human beings, women deserved the same fundamental rights as men and should no longer be treated as mere ornaments or property.

New Unity Church in London
The meeting house where Wollstonecraft formed her radical ideas. Today, a non-religious church.

The birthplace of feminism

Today, Newington Green honours its history as a radically inclusive, non-religious church and meeting house.

After years of uncertainty and near-dereliction, the building has been awarded £1.73 million for refurbishment, which was completed in summer 2020. It is now permanently removed from the Historic England at-risk list.

Professor Midgley’s research helped secure the funding not only to refurbish the building as a community meeting house, but as a historical centre exploring Mary Wollstonecraft and the history of dissent. It is projected to engage 77,770 people with ‘the birthplace of feminism’ by hosting events, exhibitions and education programmes based on her research. 

Her work has also led to the first ever memorial to Mary Wollstonecraft — which hit headlines across the globe when it was unveiled in 2020. The monument was a polarising, controversial design which ignited fierce debate on its depiction of womanhood. It nonetheless brought Wollstonecraft to a large audience and provided much-deserved recognition of her work and influence.

The church and statue in Newington Green will help educate people on Wollstonecraft for generations and present a more inclusive side to British history — demonstrating how historical and literary research can have a tangible human impact.

About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.

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