On a Stoke Newington corner, astride the New Unity Church railings, a banner proclaims ‘The Birthplace of Feminism’. In this small, Unitarian congregation beats a radical heart. Here, amongst
the pews more than 250 years ago, sat Mary Wollstonecraft.
Last weekend, a mysterious portrait of the radical feminist appeared on the wall of the Church. The stencil, designed by graffiti artist Stewy was put there on International Women’s Day to celebrate the palpable influence Wollstonecraft made on the Newington Green community and far, far beyond.
Stewy’s painting also acts as a ghost-like trace, spearheading the path for a more lasting tribute in Stoke Newington. Roberta Wedge, local activist and member of the ‘Mary on the Green’ campaign, represents that hope with plans to build a statue of the feminist on Newington Green.
“I always say to people, if you were raised by a woman who could read and vote and work, then you owe something to Mary Wollstonecraft,” says Wedge, a 44-year-old former English teacher and Mary enthusiast.
‘Mary on the Green’, a campaign spearheaded by Newington Green Action Group, needs to raise £260,000 for the statue. Supported by a host of academics, such as Mary Beard, Melvyn Bragg and Amartya San, locals hope to immortalise Wollstonecraft in the place where her ground-breaking
ideas first took shape.
It was in the 1780s that Mary Wollstonecraft, considered the mother of feminism, cultivated her political views in this corner of Hackney.
The radical writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights, conceived her most famous work A Vindication of the Rights of Women in Stoke Newington. The book argues for the education of women, maintaining that they are human beings, who deserve the same rights as men. Mary controversially equated marriage to prostitution, saying that women were worth more than just their husband’s property.
Born in 1759 to a silk weaver’s family, Mary had a troubled childhood. Her father squandered what the little family had trying to raise his social profile. According to historical accounts, Mary’s father was often drunk and abusive. Mary would lie down in front of her door to protect her mother from his evening rampages.
In the 18th century, there was no formal education for women, apart from small village schools, so Mary was forced to scrape together what education she could get. She set up her own school in Newington Green which was developed in a climate of radical politics. The village was already well-known for its dissenting and radical politics and was home to Richard Price, a key Enlightenment figure.
Although the building no longer stands, local experts say that her window would have looked out onto the Green.
“Clearly there was something internal inside of her burning to get out. The local history booklet of Newington Green is called ‘the village that changed the world’. And, it was certainly the village that changed Mary’s life,” said Wedge.
Wedge, who runs a blog called Vindication of the Rights of Mary and tweets as Wollstonecraft, said: “Of all the places that she lived, there are many places that could claim to have the right to have her statue, but it’s Newington Green that has mounted a campaign to have a statue of her. The first one in the world.”
In November 2011, the campaigners beamed a picture of the feminist on the Houses of Parliament.
But this is not the only artistic representation of Mary in London. The arrival of Mary’s black and white outline last week showed the growing recognition of Stokey’s role model.
“I’ve wanted to create an image of Mary Wollstonecraft for a while. Because of her importance and location, I made contact with ‘Mary on The Green’ nd told people in the local community of my intention,” said Stewy.
“I suppose other than acting like a life-like ghost image of Mary, it makes an immediate impact and may make a younger generation aware of the past and important female icons,” explains Stewy who is selling prints of the Mary stencil to financially aid the Mary on the Green campaign.
Reverend Andy Pakula, Minister of New Unity, the Unitarian Church on which Mary appeared said: “This is a mysterious apparition of the mother of feminism – a daring figure who continues to inspire us in the fight for freedom and justice for all people. Mary’s spirit has been with us always. Now her image is as well!”
Bee Rowlatt, campaigner for Mary on the Green, recently published an article on Wollstonecraft in 50 Shades of Feminism. The author and broadcaster said that the feminist deserves to be recognised in artistic form.
“She’s inspired me to make a lot of changes in my life.” Bee, so inspired by Wollstonecraft, retraced the feminist’s journey through Scandinavia with her own daughter in 2010,” stated Rowlatt.
Speaking at an International Women’s Day event on Saturday, she said: “Mary Wollstonecraft is a woman so far ahead of her time; we’re still living in her dust trail.”
Mary’s forthright views on feminist politics were ground-breaking in the eighteenth century. According to historical accounts, she was the first woman to write on the possibility of equal marriage, equal education and equality for women. But, how what would she make of 21st century Britain?
“She’d be pleased on some counts, but surprised by others,” says Rowlatt. “I think she’d be surprised by today’s body culture and particularly by the low level of rape conviction rates. But, she’d also be delighted by the women in positions of power around the world.”
Mary’s influence on Hackney and feminists across the UK is palpable. “The need to commemorate Mary Wollstonecraft can take on all forms – talks, books, discussion, re-enactments, art just forms a part of her legacy,” says graffiti artist Stewy.
“You only need to pop along to a service at the Unitarian Church to see that her spirit and messages conveyed through her writings are still very much present in Hackney.“
If you’d like to get in touch with the Mary on the Green team, help organise a fundraising event, or donate to the statue fund, visit this website for more information.