New Wollstonecraft statue: A beautiful tribute or a sexist depiction of the ‘mother of feminism’?

On Tuesday 10th November, a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft, the ‘mother of feminism’, was unveiled in Newington Green, Islington. Wollstonecraft was a liberal philosopher whose work paved the way for women to participate in politics. She is known for her work ‘The Vindication of the Rights of Women’, which was a response to the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen’ produced during the French Revolution.  

This is a huge step forwards as, throughout history, female political thinkers’ works and achievements have been overlooked and disregarded in favour of their male counterparts. However, the statue has caused controversy as artist Maggi Hambling chose to symbolise Wollstonecraft’s work by creating a figure of a slim, naked woman instead of a realistic and clothed statue of Wollstonecraft herself. 

It could be said that Wollstonecraft would have appreciated the nude statue commemorating her work. After all, she was a forward-thinking philosopher in her time, so she may have approved of this nude statue if she were alive in our time, where discourse surrounding nudity is far more open. Indeed, journalist Bee Rowlatt appears to agree with this idea, stating that Maggi Hambling was commissioned for the piece because she moves away from the idea of ‘putting people on pedestals, which frankly is not in the spirit of Wollstonecraft’s philosophy’.  

However, I would argue that this justification of the nude statue removes the art from the social context that it belongs in. Female philosophers have never been put on pedestals or recognised for their contributions to political philosophy. This statue is the first commemorative work dedicated to a modern female philosopher – so is it fair to take away her pedestal  when she never had one in the first place? 

I firmly believe that the premise of feminism is about a woman’s right to choose. Whether she is making choices about her career, her education, her body or her nudity, true feminism is about giving women the power to decide what is right for them. I strongly believe that depicting Wollstonecraft as a naked body,  symbolic or not, is removing her ability to choose. It would be reasonable to assume that within the historical context that she lived in, she would never have wanted to appear naked.  

I also think that this statue is very telling of the world we live in. Statues of male philosophers are realistic and clothed portrayals of great men who have contributed to our way of ordering society today, and we see their statues as interesting in their own right as a great celebration of their work. However, ‘the mother of feminism’ has been reduced down to her bare breasts as if nudity is a large part of what she has contributed to society, implying that a clothed statue of her wouldn’t be interesting enough to warrant attention. 

What makes the scandal even more upsetting is the response of the artist. Hambling was quoted as saying that the naked statue of Wollstonecraft is ‘more or less the shape we’d all like to be’. This comment really sums up the disservice that the bust does for feminism. Feminists today advocate for body positivity and inclusivity, ending fat-shaming and bringing awareness to eating disorders. Yet Hambling implies that we should ignore these strides in the movement in favour of idolising Wollstonecraft via a statue of a thin, white, stereotypically attractive, naked woman.  

Having read this quote from Hambling, I feel as though the angry opposition to the statue is justified. The artist who made this bust lacks social awareness about feminist values, empowerment and evidently, the character of Wollstonecraft. All of this suggests that Hambling was the wrong artist for this landmark statue and has disappointingly commemorated the work of a truly remarkable woman. 

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