The Wollstonecraft Statue: Feminism Laid Bare?

Culture Life

Image Description: Photograph of the top of Maggi Hambling’s silver-bronzed sculpture honouring Mary Wollstonecraft, which features a naked female figure rising from an amalgamation of other female forms.

Anyone who has been to North London’s Newington Green (or has visited the quagmire of social media recently) will have seen Maggi Hambling’s new statue commemorating Mary Wollstonecraft. In person, you will have seen a hulk of metal topped like a Christmas tree with the nude form of a woman, and online you will have seen the flurry of tweets decrying its existence. I’ll admit, the first thing I thought of when I saw this statue in my newsfeed was Olivia Colman in Fleabag, proudly brandishing a golden torso of a similarly nude woman. I turned to my friend, laughed, and said: “This is beyond satire.”

For Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759- 1797. There’s the rub.

I find it difficult to articulate why I hate this statue so much. Half of me likes to think it’s an instinct – a sort of earned confusion as to how this is in any way representative of Wollstonecraft and her work. The other half of me fears that it’s something trained into me by the very spheres of debate I’ve seen about the statue. I don’t want to be called sensitive or a snowflake. I don’t want the conversations we have about art and feminism and the world as we know it to be dominated by the sort of caginess or conservativeness I harbour towards this statue. Even writing this, I pause and think: Why does it matter? Why am I so angry?

Two things irritate me most: the symbolism and the carelessness. Hambling’s statue is definitely a statement. The fact that its form is so at odds with its environment and our traditional expectations of statues or tributes is something, perhaps, we should embrace. The very fact that I am writing this article amongst a volley of conversation and debate would suggest that the statue has accomplished its most important function. For a few days, we have all thought about Mary Wollstonecraft, even if for just a fleeting moment. Some would argue, what better way to honour her than to move against the commemorative status quo and to spark the very conversations she sought to spark herself?

It’s not that I don’t think art should be innovative – I do – but I question just how innovative this statue really is. It’s not a simple recreation of Wollstonecraft’s likeness but an ideological tribute to her proto-feminist work. Hambling has made a point to clarify that the woman depicted atop the statue is not Wollstonecraft herself but instead the ‘everywoman’, held up by a mess of fleeting female forms. For some reason, it is only possible for women to see themselves reflected in a statue where a woman has been stripped, literally, down to her most basic form. She is an emblem, an idealism, and she is far removed from Wollstonecraft.

There is something insulting in the assertion I could not identify with a statue of Wollstonecraft herself. That I, a female university student, would not be able to see myself in an educated woman – one who read and wrote and thought in such a way that I aspire to. I am even more bitter that the idea persists that the female body is something radical, political, or inherently feminist itself. This doesn’t strike me as a liberating or profound statue any more than it’s a lazy attempt to say that ‘perfect’ women stand on the shoulders of other women.

This show of solidarity, of ultimate feminism, seems hollow and empty years on from movements that sought to liberate our bodies. Nothing is revolutionary in being shown the same stock image of a perfect woman again and again and being told that we should all identify with it. Especially in light of increasing campaigns to celebrate diversity – what is it we gain by homogenising our monuments to women, by honouring the ‘mother of feminism’ herself with the image of someone else? Most of all, it’s confusing. Without the series of public clarifications that Hambling made on the meaning of her statue, I would have thought it was Wollstonecraft depicted at the helm of it. I’m surprised no one paused to think about how it would be viewed in passing on the Green rather than with all of the befuddled context assigned to it.

This show of solidarity, of ultimate feminism, seems hollow and empty years on from movements that sought to liberate our bodies. Nothing is revolutionary in being shown the same stock image of a perfect woman again and again and being told that we should all identify with it.

Statues themselves have constituted something of a political battleground this year. The very act of selecting and erecting monuments to historical figures comes with it a thousand choices; who to put where, with what placard, to what end? These public monuments have to be carefully considered by the very nature of them being public. They occupy a physical space not just where they stand but in the social messaging of this country. Hambling’s statue is bold in ways it shouldn’t be. It’s unclear what exactly its aims are and painfully backward in its feminist messaging. Most of all, it detracts from Mary Wollstonecraft. For the length of this article, I’ve been dancing around pleas to keep statues simple, conservative in their execution, and clear in their meaning because it sounds so regressive.

Yet, sometimes ideas are best expressed in their simplest form. Wollstonecraft’s ideas are tied up in her identity. She is as much of an everywoman as literally every woman alive. I want to identify with her image, I want her to be remembered and honoured publicly without uproar and regret. I wonder what she would think of her statue, having said we are “taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.” Hambling’s statue is not a memorial to Wollstonecraft’s ideas or life, instead, it is a monument to our current society and our perceptions of women and feminism in the now.  I’m sure its metal, like its meaning, is hollow.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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