The “Mother of Feminism” Finally Got a Statue! …oh.

A photograph of the new London statue honouring Mary Wollstonecraft
Image source: The Independent

Mary Wollstonecraft, “The Mother of Feminism”, is someone we don’t hear enough about. She died before she was forty but in her short life, she wrote a seminal feminist book (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), set up a boarding school, became one of the first women to make a true career out of writing (this was groundbreaking then), and gave birth shortly before her death to Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft, the woman who gave us Frankenstein.

In short, she was a badass. And she was very human. She knew desperate loss; her best friend died and the beloved father of her first child left her. She also knew joy; she knew extremes of emotion. She had wild love affairs but she also had deep depressions. The impression I have from reading about her is that she lived a life that swirled with passion and deep thought and a desire to make changes. Basically, she wrung a lot out of her thirty-eight years alive.

Maggi Hambling, the chainsmoking famously potty-mouthed artist who was selected in 2018 to honour Wollstonecraft with a statue, is also a total badass. I first encountered her work when visiting Aldeburgh in Suffolk where I saw Scallop, the giant bronze broken shell she created as an homage to Benjamin Britten.

That shell attracted huge criticism from locals when it was unveiled, but I couldn’t see why. It’s truly stunning. It connects the sea and sky as though it grew from the earth and it takes your breath away from every angle. It does exactly what it was meant to do.

A photograph of a shell sculpture on Aldeburgh beach
Image source: The Spectator

I honestly couldn’t have thought of any living artist more suited to the task of creating a sculptural tribute to Wollstonecraft, the woman whose feminist legacy changed women’s lives forever. When I heard about the statue’s unveiling in North London last week and the first pitter-patter of Twitter outrage and disappointment started falling in my timeline, I was expecting this outrage to come from the same unfathomable place as the criticisms of Scallop.

I thought I’d love the statue when I saw it.

So I looked it up. The Wollstonecraft sculpture is beautifully made. The concept is clear and it’s a great one — a single woman rises from a wave of nebulous female forms and stands, proud and true, at its crest. The wording on the sculpture’s plinth tells us that the statue is supposed to be a tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft, not a representation of her. So far, so good.

Except that the woman at the crest of the wave is entirely naked. Her hair is slicked back and she has large breasts, sweeping hips, an apparently gym-toned stomach, and prominent pubic hair. Hambling herself said “she’s every woman…she’s more or less the shape we’d all like to be.”

Except…is she? Should she be?

Because like it or not, most of us aren’t quite that shape. How can it be fair to represent every woman with the shape of an idealised one? Hambling suggests that her detractors have missed the point of the sculpture, but I’d whisper that in that regard, maybe she has.

I just can’t understand why the woman depicted on the plinth has to be naked, why she has to be “Traditional Hot Woman” shaped, and also why she has to be — as far as we can tell from a silver sculpture — white. If the depiction is not a historic portrait of Wollstonecraft herself then why should she be English in appearance? Why should she be a slender yet voluptuous sexy hourglass shape?

The author Bee Rowlatt, who campaigned for the statue, defends it robustly.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a rebel and a pioneer, and she deserves a pioneering work of art. There’s no question that Maggi Hambling is a challenging artist, and this work is certainly not your average statue….

The figure is representative of the birth of a movement. She was the foremother of feminism. This work is an attempt to celebrate her contribution to society with something that goes beyond the Victorian traditions of putting people on pedestals.

I get it. I do. And it’s a wonderful thing that the statue exists, and its creator has a huge talent. But I can’t get away from the fact that someone is being put on a pedestal here, and that person is a naked woman.

A naked woman who’s depicted exactly the way male artists throughout history would always have depicted a naked woman.

I think it’s a massive cop-out.

Previous Post
Next Post

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *