Edition 1 2021

Statue of a Woman, or Womankind?

5 March 2021

The unveiling of 18th century writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft’s statue in north London should have been a moment of triumph after years of campaigning by Mary on the Green, a movement dedicated to celebrating Wollstonecraft’s work. However, the statue by controversial artist Maggi Hambling presented the same tired depictions and themes that have plagued the portrayal of women in the art world for centuries. Wollstonecraft is regarded as a proto-feminist icon, known for her women’s rights advocacy, most notably for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), contending that women were just as capable and valuable to society as men when afforded the same education. This is the first and only statue dedicated to Wollstonecraft, but from intent to execution, it highlights the frustratingly standardised portrayal of women in art as women first, and individuals second. 

Women as a Collective

There is a lengthy history of men being depicted specifically, as individuals, and women being depicted to represent “womankind,” or women in general. Unfortunately, Hambling’s tribute conforms to these expectations. The statue of Mary Wollstonecraft portrays a generic, nondescript woman stationed atop a metallic wave of female forms, intermingled and indistinguishable from each other. Hambling states the purpose was not to capture Wollstonecraft’s likeness; rather, “it’s a sculpture about now, in her spirit”. Similarly, Bee Rowlett—writer and chair of the Mary on the Green campaign—defended the work which was intended to represent the “birth of feminism”. 

It’s worth asking why a dedication to Mary Wollstonecraft must represent the “spirit” of early feminism and not her life or achievements as a writer and philosopher. When we consider men such as Winston Churchill, we find a celebration of an individual commended for both his actions and specific attributes—not for mankind, nor for men. He is highly personified in statuary form, depicted with his trademark cane, coat, and wide stature. Furthermore, Wollstonecraft is widely considered the “mother of feminism”. We can see similar attributes ascribed to men such as Freud, who is often considered the “father of modern psychology,” yet the Hampstead statue of him manages to simultaneously capture his likeness and the gravitas of his contributions—all while remaining clothed. Comparing this to the faceless Wollstonecraft statue, it sends a message that men are appreciated as individuals, but women only as members of a collective. 


Women as the Instruments of Achievement

Campaigners have justified the lack of individual resemblance to Wollstonecraft by suggesting that it opposes the “traditional male heroic statuary”. I can appreciate the sentiment of trying to break away from the typical overt and ostentatious statuary style that emphasises the likeness of the subject above all else. But Hambling’s statue does not challenge the way we commemorate people, or explore how monuments privilege men in style and form. Instead, it plays into the narrative of disregarding women’s achievements as their own. While Wollstonecraft’s accomplishments themselves are celebrated in the symbols of feminist thought, she is treated as a footnote to this achievement. Why can we not unapologetically raise a woman up on a pedestal and appreciate her: her likeness, personality, and achievements—like we do when we commemorate men? A man is the achievement, a woman is just the vessel of an achievement. This is the underwhelming message Hambling’s statue sends.


Nudity Distinguishing a Woman

Women have historically been underrepresented as artists while overrepresented in nude artwork. The most manifest commentary on this issue can be seen in the Guerrilla Girls poster Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? which aptly details that “less than five per cent of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but eighty-five per cent of the nudes are female”. Not only does Hambling’s statue follow this precedent, but the physical characteristics of the woman at the apex of the statue fly directly in the face of Hambling’s justification for the lack of clothing: “she’s Everywoman, I’m not defining her in any particular clothes”. It’s a shame “Everywoman” is an ethnically Caucasian, slim-built, toned, young, able-bodied, cis-gendered, nude woman. Using female nudity as the poster for the “beginnings of feminism” directly contributes to a shallow misunderstanding of feminism as a “bare-breasted fight”. This is not to say that nudity and the female form is not an important aspect of feminist debate. But it is highly reductive to intentionally depict such a broad concept as “the birth of feminism” using the nude female body, and inappropriate to reduce the achievements of a prominent proto-feminist writer and philosopher such as Wollstonecraft to such a narrow exhibition. Alongside men depicted as generals wearing military garb, politicians giving speeches—the distinguishing feature by which Mary Wollstonecraft is immortalised in Hambling’s statue is the fact that she was a woman.  

The inscription on the base of the Wollstonecraft statue reads: “I do not wish women to have power over men but over themselves” words from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Perhaps it should read: “Mary Wollstonecraft, a woman. She also liked to write.” One could roll their eyes and sigh at how a dedication to a women’s rights advocate and proto-feminist thinker ended up representing anything but that.

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