Grace is a second year medical student at King’s with a passion for medical humanities, closing the gender data gap, and perfecting the chocolate chip cookie. When not out walking she can usually be found in front of a sewing machine, behind a computer, or inside a book.
[Featured Image: Mary Wollstonecraft painted by John Opie c.1790/1. Image from the Tate collection. Source.]
“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Mary Wollstonecraft was many things throughout her life: Second child and oldest daughter to an abusive father who squandered the family fortunes and a mother so weak and cowed that she could do nothing more than favour her bullying son; paid ladies companion, headmistress (and teacher) in the school she founded; writer; maternal figure, co-conspirator, and support to her younger sisters; philosopher, radical, and revolutionary; lover, mother, and wife (in that order); free thinker; feminist; friend.
What she wasn’t, the vast majority of the time, was naked. So why is this how the only statue of her in existence wants us to remember her?
Mary on the Green is a ten-year-long campaign set up with the aim of erecting a memorial to Mary Wollstonecraft to symbolise her legacy in public statue. In 2019 they met their fundraising goal and artist Maggie Hambling was commissioned to produce the monument, which was unveiled on the 10th of November on Newington Green, London (opposite the Newington Green Unitarian Church which Wollstonecraft attended and close to the site of the school she set up). Almost instantly, the statue was met with widespread criticism, garnered for the most part by the statue’s appearance: that of a naked female figure arising from a swirling mass of female forms, an appearance that was described by the campaign as “being in deliberate opposition to “traditional male heroic statuary” of the Victorian era, instead showing a small figure who “has evolved organically from, is supported by, and does not forget, all her predecessors”.
Response online and in the media, however, was a lot less forgiving. Author Caroline Criado-Perez, who played a key role in the campaign to erect a statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett as the first woman in Parliament Square, said of the Wollstonecraft Statue “I honestly feel that actually this representation is insulting to her. I can’t see her feeling happy to be represented by this naked, perfectly formed wet dream of a woman.”
It is true that in the UK we are desperately in need of greater representation of women and other non-straight-white-cis-male groups in our statues and monuments. In 2018, figures release by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PSMA – a volunteer run charity recording public sculpture across the UK) revealed that, of the 828 statues they had recorded on their (not exhaustive) database, only 174 (21%) of them were of women or female figures. That’s approximately a ratio of 1 female statue for every 5 male ones – the same as the proportion of female CEOs in the 250 biggest firms on the London stock exchange.
Worse, of the 174 statues of women, only 80 (45%) of them are named, 66 (37%) are fictional, allegorical, or mythical, and 38 are royal (mostly Queen Victoria). Of the 534 statues of men, however, 422 (79%) of them are named, and of those only 16 (3%) are fictional, mythical, or allegorical. Too, at the time of reckoning, the PMSA had 65 statues of male politicians recorded and no female politicians.
Still, blindly accepting any statue of a female figure in the name of representation is not the way forward. A statue portraying the “mother of feminism” as an anonymous ‘everywoman’ naked form sets a dangerously misogynistic precedent in a world where influential men are instead celebrated with direct, fully clothed depictions. As writer and columnist Cailtin Moran tweeted, “Imagine if there was a statue of a hot young naked guy ‘in tribute’ to eg Churchill. It would look mad. This, also, looks mad.” Writer Tracy King, who was also involved in the Millicent Garrett Fawcett statue campaign, took it further, saying “Any passing teenage boy is not going to think, oh, that’s an icon of feminist education. They are going to think – tits!”
Mary Wollstonecraft was not gently propelled upwards to acclaim and greatness, rising gracefully above the chaos of her time, as this statue implies. She fought, she built herself. She was politically and philosophically active in a world that thought that was the worst possible thing she could be. She built herself from the ground up and when society made it clear that there was no place for women like her, she damn well tried to build that too, hoping to leave behind a world more accepting of the then radical concepts of free love, equal rights, and access to education for women and girls.
“…men endeavour to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment; and women, intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses, pay them, do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their hearts, or to become the friends of the fellow creatures who find amusement in their society.”Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Romantic Outlaws (Charlotte Gordon, 2015, Windmill)
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792, Random House)