Bitter row over naked statue of feminist icon
Is the new statue for Mary Wollstonecraft offensive? The women’s rights activist is finally being recognised more than 200 years after she died. Now critics are asking: why is she naked?
A new statue for the 18th Century feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft was unveiled this week in London - metres from where she lived and worked – in it she is naked.
Supporters say a new statue of an iconic woman was long overdue in London. Over 90% of the city’s monuments feature men and just 3% of all statues in Britain are of non-Royal women.
Mary Wollstonecraft, “the mother of feminism”, seemed like the perfect candidate.
The new statue has divided critics. “There is no reason to depict Mary naked,” said writer Tracy King.
For activist Caroline Criado Perez, the sculpture is not only a “colossal waste” but disrespectful to Wollstonecraft herself.
Less than 24 hours after the statue was installed, protestors had scaled the monument to cover the naked figure in clothes.
The statue’s creator has hit back. She says sceptics are missing a crucial detail – the statue is “for” Mary Wollstonecraft, not “of” her.
The nude body represents “Everywoman”.
Supporters believe the statue is not thoughtless. They argue that Everywoman draws heavily on Mary Wollstonecraft’s own words.
The new statue for Mary Wollstonecraft has sparked debate on who should be remembered and how.
Is the statue offensive?
Missing the mark
No. Critics have misinterpreted it. The statue portrays a woman ready to challenge the world. The statue is a tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft, not a lifelike depiction. If the figure was wearing an 18th Century dress, she could not represent Everywoman – and, there is nothing wrong with nudity.
Yes. It is impossible to imagine a famous male author portrayed unclothed. It is outrageous to reduce the life of Wollstonecraft to an anonymous Everywoman. The slender body does not represent every woman. Mary Wollstonecraft deserves her own statue – one in which she is clothed.
- What makes a statue powerful?
- Write a list of five people from your country who you think deserve a new statue, with explanations.
Some People Say...
“I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.”Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), English writer, philosopher and women’s rights advocate
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that memorials to women are vastly underrepresented among the statues across the UK. When campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez analysed a catalogue of 925 public sculptures in the UK in 2016, she found that only 158 of those statues depicted women. And of those 158 women, approximately half were fictional figures, 46 were of royalty and 14 were of the Virgin Mary. There were no statues of female politicians.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate surrounds what Mary Wollstonecraft herself would have thought of the statue. Indeed, both supporters and critics of Maggi Hambling’s sculpture have used Wollstonecraft’s own words to further their arguments. Historian Dr Sophie Coulombeau believes those “with a very strong opinion” should read Wollstonecraft’s work. “She’s a lot weirder and ickier and more surreal than most realise”, she said, adding “I think Hambling gets that”.
- Mary Wollstonecraft
- The writer and philosopher set up a boarding school for girls in Newington Green, London aged just 25. She died aged 38 after giving birth to her daughter Mary Shelley, who went on to write Frankenstein.
- Tracy King
- A writer and producer who coordinated the campaign to install a statue of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett in London’s Parliament Square.
- Caroline Criado Perez
- The author is best known for her campaign to make Jane Austen the face of the £10 note. She also worked with King on the Millicent Fawcett campaign.