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?
In the middle of a leafy park in north London, a mass of twisted silver rises from the ground.
At its peak emerges the tiny figure of a woman. Arms clenched tightly by her side, she gazes resolutely into the sky, as if unmoved by the stares of the crowds below. And the stares are frequent – because she is totally naked.
This is a new statue for the 18th Century writer Mary Wollstonecraft, which was unveiled this week just metres from where she lived and worked.
It marked the culmination of a decade-long campaign to fund the £143,000 project and celebrate the life of Wollstonecraft, who wrote her manifesto, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, in 1792 – a full century before the emergence of the suffragette movement.
Supporters say a new statue of an iconic woman was long overdue in London. Over 90% of the city’s monuments feature men and, astonishingly, just 3% of all statues in Britain are of non-Royal women.
Mary Wollstonecraft, known to many as “the mother of feminism”, seemed like the perfect candidate to help correct the imbalance.
But the new statue has fiercely divided critics. “There is no reason to depict Mary naked,” said writer Tracy King. “Statues of named men get to be clothed because the focus is on their work and achievements”.
And for activist Caroline Criado Perez, the sculpture is not only a “colossal waste” but disrespectful to Wollstonecraft herself, who once argued that in a society obsessed with beauty, women’s bodies become their prisons.
By Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the statue was installed, protestors had scaled the monument to cover the naked figure in clothes.
Now the statue’s creator, controversial sculptor Maggi Hambling, has hit back. She says sceptics are missing a crucial detail – the statue is “for” Mary Wollstonecraft, not “of” her.
Instead, the nude body represents “Everywoman” – a “free-standing woman” who is “ready to confront the world”.
And the twisted mass of metal that sits beneath Everywoman? This, according to the campaign group, represents “her predecessors who advocated, campaigned and sacrificed themselves for women’s emancipation”.
Indeed, Hambling’s supporters believe the statue is not as thoughtless as it may seem at first. They argue that Everywoman draws heavily on Mary Wollstonecraft’s own words: she once said that statues “are not modelled on nature” but rather are projections of the imagination that gain their power from “the fine senses and enlarged understanding of the artist”.
This is not the first time that statues have made headlines this year. In June, anti-racism protestors in Bristol tore down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston. Meanwhile, in the US, lawmakers across the country raced to remove dozens of Confederate figures before activists could pull them down.
Now, a new statue for Mary Wollstonecraft has sparked an intense debate on not only who should be remembered, but how.
So, is the statue offensive?
Missing the mark
No, say some. Critics of the sculpture have simply misinterpreted it. The statue portrays a woman ready to challenge the world. Maggi Hambling was paying tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft, but she was not trying to create a lifelike depiction of her. If the figure was wearing an ornate 18th Century dress, she could not possibly represent Everywoman – and anyway, there is nothing wrong with nudity.
Yes, say others. It is impossible to imagine that a famous male author would ever be portrayed unclothed today. And it is outrageous to reduce the extraordinary but complicated life of Wollstonecraft to that of an anonymous Everywoman. Nor does the slender body truly represent the diversity of every woman living today. Mary Wollstonecraft deserves her own statue – and one in which she is clothed.
- What makes a statue powerful?
- Should we be offended by nudity?
- Write a list of five people from your country who you think deserve a new statue, with explanations.
- Use the expert links to look at the other shortlisted statue of Mary Wollstonecraft by artist Martin Jennings. Do you prefer Hambling’s radical sculpture or Jennings’ more traditional design? Write a letter to a newspaper advocating for your favourite.
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.
- The suffragettes fought for women’s right to vote in Britain in the early 20th Century. Suffragettes took direct action, compared to suffragists who campaigned peacefully.
- 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.
- Maggi Hambling
- A British artist who is best known for her public sculptures, including a memorial to dramatist Oscar Wilde. When it was unveiled in 1998, one critic said “hideous is too gentle a word to describe it.”
- Women’s emancipation
- The achievement of complete economic, political, social and religious equality of women with men.
- Someone who supported or fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War. The Confederacy was a group of southern states that tried to leave the US and keep slavery.