Nude Statue Honoring ‘Mother of Feminism’ Mary Wollstonecraft Sparks Controversy

The artist says the sculpture depicts an everywoman, reflecting the 18th-century philosopher’s continuing relevance today

Wollstonecraft statue
The statue's base is engraved with a quote from Wollstonecraft: “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.” Photo by Kristian Buus / In Pictures via Getty Images

A statue honoring 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft is attracting ire following its installation in London this week. Featuring a nude woman standing atop a twisted mass of female forms, the artwork quickly drew criticism from observers who viewed it as an inappropriate tribute to an intellectual often called the “mother of feminism.”

The silver-toned bronze sculpture, created by British artist Maggi Hambling, is located on Newington Green, Islington, close to where the author once lived. Its base is engraved with a quote from Wollstonecraft: “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.”

Speaking with the Guardian’s Alexandra Topping, feminist writer Caroline Criado-Perez, who previously led efforts to install a statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett in London’s Parliament Square, says, “I don’t for a second want to take away from the huge effort that they put into doing this, it is an amazing achievement, but what a waste of all the hard work.”

She adds, “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.”

Hambling, for her part, tells the Evening Standard’s Robert Dex that the nude figure is not meant to depict Wollstonecraft, but women of all eras.

“She’s [an] everywoman and clothes would have restricted her,” the artist says. “Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes.”

Regarding the slim, muscular body of the woman depicted in the statue, Hambling says, “As far as I know, she’s more or less the shape we’d all like to be.”

The polarizing statue is the result of a decade-long effort by the Mary on the Green campaign, which raised £143,300 (about $189,200 USD) for the artwork. Organizers pointed out that more than 90 percent of London’s statues commemorate men, while key female figures like Wollstonecraft have often gone unrecognized.

Wollstonecraft portrait
Wollstonecraft is best known as the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. edenpictures via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

“Mary Wollstonecraft was a rebel and a pioneer, and she deserves a pioneering work of art,” Mary on the Green campaign chair Bee Rowlatt tells BBC News. “This work is an attempt to celebrate her contribution to society with something that goes beyond the Victorian traditions of putting people on pedestals.”

In an interview with the Guardian, Rowlatt adds, “We could have done something really, really boring and ordinary, and, and very Victorian and old fashioned. And, you know, I would be having a slightly easier day today.”

Many people on social media pointed to the contrast between the Wollstonecraft statue and those honoring significant male historical figures.

“Imagine if there was a statue of a hot young naked guy ‘in tribute’ to eg Churchill,” wrote columnist and author Caitlin Moran on Twitter. “It would look mad. This, also, looks mad.”

Wollstonecraft is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a 1792 essay that advocated equal education for girls and the admission of women into professional occupations. She was part of an influential, London-based group of radical thinkers that counted Thomas Paine, William Goodwin and William Blake among its other members; her writing laid the groundwork for 19th-century campaigns for women’s suffrage and rights under the law. Wollstonecraft died in September 1797 at just 38 years old, 11 days after giving birth to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

Last month, a statue titled Medusa With the Head of Perseus sparked a similar spate of controversy after it was installed across the street from the New York City courthouse where Harvey Weinstein stood trial. Designed by artist Luciano Garbati, the seven-foot bronze sculpture shows the snake-haired gorgon naked, wielding a sword in one hand and holding Perseus’ severed head in the other. Though some observers heralded the work as a stunning example of feminist art, others questioned the value of placing a male artist’s likeness of a naked, conventionally beautiful woman in such a prominent location for the #MeToo movement.

Writing for the Guardian, columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett calls attention to parallels between the two statues: “Medusa is shown as a slender, toned, idealized figure, suggesting her creator suffers from the same problem as Hambling: a lack of creativity, a consequent falling back on the visual symbols that we are told epitomize great art (perky breasts) with the false belief that fidelity to those conventions will prevent anyone from pointing out their banality.”

Cosslett concludes, “I call it the ‘It’s a naked lady, so it must be art’ syndrome.”

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