Mary Wollstonecraft deserves a statue: just not a nude one

Where would we be without Mary Wollstonecraft? Indeed, that question yields the same answers as the question “Where would we be without feminism?” I wouldn’t be writing this article for a university paper, because I wouldn’t be at university at all, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to vote for the first time in the general election last December. Of course, the Suffragettes came quite some time after Mary Wollstonecraft, but they used her seminal text A Vindication of the Rights of Women to make a case for women’s suffrage, and she spoke up for gender equality when few others would.

Today’s society is vastly more liberal than it was during Wollstonecraft’s lifetime, and she made the first push towards this change. A statue commemorating her life and work therefore seemed like an apt way of marking her legacy. This birthed Mary On The Green, a campaign to get a statue of Wollstonecraft installed on London’s Newington Green, near where she lived. After ten years of demands, the campaign finally bore fruit, and a statue designed by Maggi Hambling was erected at the beginning of November.

Except the statue wasn’t quite what anyone expected. We got what has been described as a “naked silver Barbie doll”. The form of Wollstonecraft itself is tiny, like an angel on the top of a Christmas tree, except one that is an oddly shaped silvery hunk of bronze that is meant to be a “swirling mingle of female forms” (I only realised that after Googling it). Oh yes, and she is naked. Stark naked. Plus she has what looks like abs, and a lot of pubic hair.

Yes, statues are art, but they are not there to serve the same purpose as a piece of modern art in a gallery. A statue is more solemn and reverent than it is a show of creativity: it commemorates an individual and reflects how they were in real life

There was an immediate backlash from the feminist community, although some did try to defend it. I’m in the former camp, however. Do not get me wrong, I am all for celebrating the female form in all its shapes and sizes. I’ll defend the choice of women who want to pose naked in the name of empowerment. I get what the Free The Nipple movement is all about. The problem is that those ideas are all very much hallmarks of modern feminism and those are being projected, if not forced, onto a woman who probably was not really thinking about all that stuff. She just wanted to see a world where women were allowed to get an education, have their say in the political arena, and did not have to be confined to the roles of wife, mother, and homemaker. It just doesn’t feel appropriate for her form to be positioned atop some strangely shaped plinth seemingly designed to shout at the viewer: “LOOK AT THIS STATUE THAT CELEBRATES THIS EMPOWERED, NAKED LADY!”

I also suspect that Hambling was trying a bit too hard with this project. I’m not trying to discredit her skill as an artist, which she clearly has in spades, but perhaps therein lies another issue. The statue is trying to be a dramatic piece of slightly abstract art and that is not what it is supposed to do. We have become more conscious of the purpose and meaning of statues this year after the debate surrounding the statue of Edward Colston being pulled down in Bristol, and that debate seems to have been forgotten already. Yes, statues are art, but they are not there to serve the same purpose as a piece of modern art in a gallery. A statue is more solemn and reverent than it is a show of creativity – it commemorates an individual and reflects how they were in real life. It’s quite a simple kind of art, really. It would have been far more fitting to have a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft properly reflecting how she would have been in her lifetime – I’m fairly sure she wasn’t frequently seen walking around naked. Maybe Hambling’s artwork could have worked if it had been put in an art gallery, where it is expected that art is there as a vessel of creativity that has something it wants to say. As a monument of commemoration, it doesn’t really make sense.

Maybe Hambling’s artwork could have worked if it had been put in an art gallery, where it is expected that art is there as a vessel of creativity that has something it wants to say. As a monument of commemoration, it doesn’t really make sense

Images of naked women also become a point of contention for feminists, and it is therefore unsurprising how many even liberal feminists would have preferred to see a statue of Wollstonecraft with clothes on. The line between a sexualised body being a vision of empowerment and objectification can be difficult to define. The key difference is that you can see the agency and choice made on the part of the woman whose nudity represents a way of trying to empower herself. Context matters. Mary Wollstonecraft could not have chosen to have a statue of herself uncharacteristically naked, and the consensus is that she wouldn’t have. That is why the statue is stirring up eerily familiar feelings in the hearts of feminists. Someone else has decided she should be naked. That someone else is usually a man wanting a naked woman to feast his eyes on.

Part of me is glad Mary Wollstonecraft will not be able to see her statue. I think that if she knew, she would roll over in her grave. Though the artwork is intended to be feminist, it feels anything but, especially down to the sentiment that no statue of a man would have ever been put up with him fully naked. This statue is not the statue that Wollstonecraft deserves.

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