Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of the early feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), was a powerful advocate for women’s equality. Now, centuries after her death, a campaign to see her honored with a public statue in London has finally succeeded—but the artwork has ignited a social media firestorm.
The sculpture depicts a nude—and remarkably fit—young woman emerging from a swirling mass of silvered bronze that’s said to represent the writer’s spirit.
“What I hate is the sexy toned female on top. Nameless, nude, and conventionally attractive is the only way women have ever been acceptable in public sculpture,” wrote author Imogen Hermes Gowar on Twitter. “This was a chance to break from those conventions, no?”
Gowar’s sentiments were echoed across the platform by people upset by sculptor Maggi Hambling’s statue.
“It’s not making me angry in any way because I just KNOW the streets will soon be full of statues depicting John Locke’s shiny testicles, Nelson Mandela’s proud penis, and Descarte’s adorable arse,” wrote author Caitlin Moran on Twitter.
For her part, Hambling pointed out that the accompanying plaque states clearly that the statue is “for” Wollstonecraft—not of her. “It’s not a conventional heroic or heroinic likeness of Mary Wollstonecraft. It’s a sculpture about now, in her spirit,” she told PA news agency. “Clothes define people. As she’s Everywoman, I’m not defining her in any particular clothes.”
“The figure is representative of the birth of a movement. She was the foremother of feminism,” author Bee Rowlatt, chair of the Mary on the Green committee, which led the effort to erect the statue, said in a statement emailed to Artnet 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 London, women are represented in fewer than 10 percent of all monuments, and the ways that they have been historically represented in art has come under growing scrutiny in recent years. The fact that only five percent of works in the modern wing of the Met are by women, but that they make up 85 percent of all the nude works on view, is the subject of one of the Guerrilla Girls’ most memorable works, Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?
In response to Hambling’s artwork, Twitter users have been sharing images of statues of historic women that they prefer to this new tribute to Wollstonecraft, from one of Anne Frank in Amsterdam, to African American Senator Barbara Jordan in Austin, to Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind in Stockholm.
Those posts show, wrote Moran, that “the statues of women other women love best show them looking real, DOING something, wearing clothes and radiating power, intellect, defiance and joy.”
The Wollstonecraft sculpture’s unveiling brings to fruition a 10-year effort to honor the author in Newington Green, where she lived and worked at the girl’s boarding school she founded. A panel of judges selected Hambling’s design from a shortlist in 2018. The project cost £143,000 ($190,000).
Hambling’s other public commissions include an Oscar Wilde bust across from London’s Charing Cross station and a statue paying tribute to composer Benjamin Britten in Suffolk.
The artist did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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