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Mary Wollstonecraft statue is a step backward for the Feminist movement

Wollstonecraft is the latest historical figure to be honoured with a statue in London but the commemoration is not what was hoped for

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Image Credit: Grim23

Ten years of funding and £143,000 later, in amidst the sea of prolific male figures honoured with a statue, arises the brave, vivid, era-defining ‘Mother of Feminism,’ Mary Wollstonecraft. In the middle of London, a beacon of hope for change and a reminder of the grand leaps we’ve made towards equality. All good things, right?

Unfortunately, upon its reveal it is clear that the statue hasn’t quite hit the mark, to which, given the motivation behind its creation, you’ve really got to ask: how can you get that so wrong?

Mary Wollstonecraft famously brought women’s rights to the political table, particularly in her work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), in which she outrageously suggests that women are not inferior to men, but rather simply granted less opportunities of education. She battled a string of abusive men throughout her life yet remained a constant activist for the equality of the sexes.

The campaign for the artwork, maryonthegreen.org, chaired by writer Bee Rowlatt, set out to highlight the disparity between the number of men and women honoured with statues in London. According to their website, 90% of the statues are dedicated to men. This addition of Wollstonecraft to that canon was ready to start the process of equalising that figure.

So, what’s the problem with the statue?

First of all, it's small. Standing on top of a mass bulk, the fragile figure poses, furnished out of silver and, most surprisingly, in the nude. From a distance it would be tricky to identify what it actually is. The figure itself is slender, toned, beautiful and very anonymous. As Wollstonecraft spent most of her life sitting down and writing, without the modern technologies that have come to aid in body sculpting, I can guarantee that that is not what she looked like. Even her features on the tiny head cannot be thought to represent her; although I admit the powerfully prominent pubic hair is probably rather accurate.

Addressing this obvious distinction, artist Maggi Hambling says that the statue is not of Wollstonecraft herself, but a representation of ‘everywoman,’ bringing her into the ‘now.’ This is why she is naked; clothes ‘define people’ and restrict them to historical periods. This way, she says, Wollstonecraft transcends her time and can be seen in the present day.

This is arguably worse. Why make a statue honouring a person as a representation of all women? How does that celebrate the works and life of that individual? Most importantly, especially given the campaign fundraiser, no man is honoured with a statue representing all men. So why should one woman have to shoulder that burden?

Equally alarming is Hambling’s ideals of ‘everywoman.’ The statue is loudly and obtusely pale, cis, heteronormative, able-bodied, young, and traditionally beautiful. She does not represent ‘everywoman’ – she represents a very narrow portion of traditional and obsolete beauty standards that have previously defined what it means to be feminine.

Hambling continues to justify her decisions. “If you read the inscription”, she says, “it is clear that the statue is ‘for’ Mary, not ‘of’ her, and that a representation of women doesn’t need to be overbearing and oversized in order to show off their power”. Stupid us then, to think a statue honouring a person would be ‘of’ them as opposed to a vague depiction of their entire gender.

In some ways I agree with Hambling’s effort to bring this legendary figure into the present. It allows Mary to transcend and be with us in the now. It reminds us of how far the fight for equality has come and how far it still has to go. However, to reduce their figure down to its barest form, to anonymise them, to ignore their contributions and focus on their body, to beautify them in that effort is wrong and a huge, ineffective step backwards. It adds to what Simone de Beauvoir warns against: the mystifying of ‘the Other’ into a singular ideal that creates boundaries and binaries that constrict what it means to be a woman.

With all the recent statue debates, it should not have been hard to honour a woman committed to fighting for equality, a cornerstone pioneer of modern-day feminism. There is one take away that Rowlatt highlights; the statue has brought our minds back, regardless of this shambolic depiction, to the work and life of an extraordinary woman. The fundraiser for the Virginia Woolf statue also saw a boost in donations so – every cloud and all that.

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