By: Claire Armstrong
Most feminists can agree that men of history are disproportionately memorialized in public and private spaces, and that the women who have shaped our world deserve more recognition than they get. So one might think that erecting a new statue dedicated to philosopher, writer, and women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft in a London park could only be a good thing. Unfortunately, for many feminists, artist Maggi Hambling’s work was not the emblem of empowerment they were hoping for.
The statue, which stands in Newington Green, cost £143,000, and took ten years to create, depicts a nude female figure rising out of a swirly silver mass. Hambling describes the piece as “[involving] this tower of intermingling female forms culminating in the figure of the woman at the top who is challenging, and ready to challenge, the world.” However, critics see it in a different light, and feel that it is disrespectful to Wollstonecraft, who was outspoken against society’s focus on women’s bodies rather than their minds. Regarding the damaging effect this can have on women, Wollstonecraft once said, “Taught from their 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.” That is to say, when women are told all their lives that their bodies and their beauty are all that matter, they themselves only invest in their bodies and their beauty, rather than cultivating their minds.
As such, some question why a statue meant to commemorate Wollstonecraft places such a focus on the female body. The campaign for the statue, called Mary on the Green, has clarified that the sculpted figure is not meant to be Wollstonecraft herself, but “an everywoman” who “emerges out of organic matter, almost like a birth.” However, this sentiment, too, has been criticized, for the woman depicted is very conventionally attractive, with European features, and, as such, may not be the best representative for “the everywoman.” Additionally, Caroline Criado-Perez argues that instead of trying to encapsulate all women in a single statue, we should erect more statues memorializing specific women. “We’ve celebrated so few women from the past that the temptation is to attempt [to represent] all of womanhood, which is never an issue when it’s a male statue,” she says.
The conversation surrounding the sculpture is a complex one, and is evidence that the feminist movement is vast and nuanced, with plenty of room for differing opinions within it. The controversy surrounding this particular work of art does not diminish the need for more representation and recognition of the work women have put in to make their mark on the world.