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Mary Wollstonecraft’s statue

Mary Wollstonecraft’s statue shouldn’t represent womanhood past or present

Maggi Hambling’s artwork commemorating the feminist pioneer has been erected in London’s Newington Green after a decade-long campaign to mixed reactions

There’s a lot that comes to mind when I hear the name ‘Mary Wollstonecraft’. There is, of course, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, considered to be one of the earliest texts of feminist political thought. There are also her multiple novels, works of translation, and numerous letters discussing important topics of the day, from the French Revolution to the best way to take care of children. I find it sad that her early death at age 38 meant much of this was published posthumously, and some was left unfinished. I wonder how political thought would have developed, had she lived into the 19th century. I might consider, too, her fascinating personal life which saw her reject the 19th norms of marriage, monogamy, and motherhood to forge a life she found personally fulfilling. 

Well, British sculptor Maggi Hambling decided to forgo all that, and when tasked with creating a work of art that encapsulated the life of one of the era’s most prominent thinkers... chose to create a work that instead looks as if she was given the prompt “a grumpy, naked woman went for a dip in the sea, she now emerges to discover that her swimming costume has slipped off”. According to the artist, the concept is based on Wollstonecraft’s statement that she was “the first of a new genus of woman”, with the woman statue intended to be “emerging from organic manner”. This intention, however, is completely lost in the mess that is the actual sculpture.

Hambling’s response to criticism has also been bizarre. She “has to be naked because clothes define people... clothes are limiting and she is everywoman”.  When we eliminate her clothes, she is now defined by her body. A body, incidentally, that Hambling says is “more or less the shape we’d all like to be”.

Despite Hambling’s assertion that defining people by their clothes can be a bad thing, clothing can be an important reflection of the person depicted, and the historical and cultural context from which they come. What’s more, Hambling’s idea of a womanly monolith that desires to both look like and be represented by the form of a skinny, naked, white woman shows that there are huge problems at the heart of the project’s conceptualisation. The idea of the ‘everywoman’ is a myth, based on an idea of women that views them as a homogenous thing, and dismisses the complexity and diversity of experiences of womanhood. Women as an entity can never accurately be represented by just one woman.

“Hambling’s idea of a womanly monolith that desires to both look like and be represented by the form of a skinny, naked, white woman shows that there are huge problems at the heart of the project’s conceptualisation”

What’s more, if we were to pick just one woman to represent “everywoman”, more than two seconds of consideration, and a cursory knowledge of her work, surely makes Mary Wollstonecraft an odd choice. While her work remains a seminal part of the history of feminist thought, it is also very much written in the context of Wollstonecraft being an upper class, white Englishwoman of the 19th century. Her use of slavery as a comparison point and metaphor for the rights of women, as well as the disapproving-to-patronising way she depicts sex workers in both her fiction and non-fiction, were both common veins of thought among her peers, but hopefully are not ones that many modern readers will agree with. Obviously, it is vital we don’t simply slap a modern lens onto a historical figure, and consider these things within their historical context, acknowledging how thinking on these issues has evolved and changed in the more than two centuries since Wollstonecraft was writing. But this is why Wollstonecraft – and really any woman – cannot be said to represent all womankind, past and present. She didn’t fulfil that role in life, so why should she in death? 

This becomes all the more perplexing and infuriating when looking at the shortlist’s other option, designed by Martin Jennings, which shows a clothed Mary, surrounded by books. But even this falls short for me. Part of the impetus behind the ‘Mary on the Green’ campaign was the fact that 90 per cent of London statues depict men. With that in mind, and the fact that Wollstonecraft’s work being devoted to discussing the lives and rights of women, I wonder what a different design shortlist might have looked like, one where a female sculpture who is capable of both accurately and creatively showcasing the life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft is represented.

When you omit the fictional and allegorical, there are only 80 public statues of named women in the UK, compared to 422 of men. Many of those aforementioned fictional women are naked and nameless. 21 outdoor statues are people of colour, 15 of which depicted Black people, six of whom were Black Britons. Who and what our public statues (and other spaces) represent, memorialise, and/or glorify are questions that have been of particular public concern in the past few years. We have witnessed events and movements such as Rhodes Must Fall, the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue by BLM protesters into Bristol’s docks, and the removal (proposed or actualised) of statues including Winston Churchill. There’s the removal of Confederate monuments in light of George Floyd’s murder, and the move to create more monuments acknowledging various cities’ and figures’ involvements in the slave trade, the Confederacy, and other atrocities. Public statues of historical figures are not neutral recorders of history, but a reflection on who and what we choose to glorify, remember, and mourn. Hopefully we keep having these conversations, and it turns into real and considered changes as to how we utilise statues in public spaces. While having a noble goal, the physical materialisation of the ‘Mary on the Green’ campaign has been disappointing.

“There are only 80 public statues of named women in the UK, compared to 422 of men. Many of those aforementioned fictional women are naked and nameless. 21 outdoor statues are people of colour, 15 of which depicted Black people, six of whom were Black Britons”

Indeed, it’s been a disappointing week for naked women made of other materials. Luciano Garbati’s 2008 statue Medusa with the Head of Perseus is a statue that I’ve seen and eye-rolled at before. The general concept is great -- a revenge fantasy which sees the inversion of Medusa and Perseus’ respective roles, as a comment on the way Medusa is wronged and vilified both in myth and our popular conceptions of her. Maybe not the most original concept in the world, but I’m on board. But, like the Wollstonecraft statue, it falls down in execution. This woman from Greek mythology’s body is depicted as perfectly clean shaven, which is disappointing both as someone who doesn’t want to see the beauty standards of a 21st century male artist placed onto the body of a classical character, and as someone who thinks it’s crazy to have the opportunity to depict someone with snake-pubes and snake-armpit hair and not take it. Wagatwe Wanjuki succinctly summed it up when she tweeted “#Metoo was started by a Black woman, but a sculpture of a European character by a dude is the commentary that gets centered? Sigh,” Wagatwe Wanjuki tweeted previously. Again, we get a skinny, conventionally attractive white woman, and this one created by a man.

We should commemorate Wollstonecraft’s life and work in a way that actually reflects said life and work, and doesn’t give this or any statue the insurmountable task of encompassing every woman in existence. Let’s think critically about the women we choose to commemorate, and expand the list. 38 of the statues depicting women in the UK are of Queen Victoria. In contrast, there were only two depicting Black British women, Mary Seacole and Dame Kelly Holmes respectively. Clearly, the landscape of British public memorialisation still has a lot of changes to make. 

When considering and celebrating the lives and work of historical figures such as Wollstonecraft, we should do it within their historical, cultural, and political contexts, instead of trying to shoehorn them into being a flat, sanitised embodiment of womankind as a whole. Wollstonecraft died prematurely, but she led a life that was fascinating and full, and ensured an enduring legacy and fascination with her life and work. Those facts could easily inspire boundlessly creative works of sculpture, so it’s hard to fathom how the Green has ended up with such bizarre misstep of a work. We can only hope that a better work might replace it, and that we continue to enact change about the state of public statues in the UK and beyond.