Two hundred years after her death, the world’s first and only memorial sculpture to Mary Wollstonecraft, the British women’s rights advocate and writer widely known as the “mother of feminism,” will be unveiled tonight in London. Much of the online reception of the new landmark this week, however, has been anything but celebratory: social media is rife with expressions of disbelief and derision over the sculpture, particularly for its inclusion of a nude female figure.
“So when Mary Wollstonecraft said women should be granted ‘respect for their abilities and virtues’ over two centuries ago, she really meant I want to be immortalised in 2020 with my tits out,” tweeted Maya Oppenheim, the Women’s Correspondent at the Independent.
Created by British artist Maggi Hambling and cast in silvered bronze, the sculpture depicts a small figure of a nude woman emerging from a tree trunk-like amalgamation of abstracted female forms. Inscribed on its base is a famous citation by Wollstonecraft: “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.”
The work was installed in Newington Green, where the writer established a girls’ boarding school in 1785. Wollstonecraft is known for her seminal book “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792), the first publication in English to argue for the equality of men and women. She died at the age of 38 after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Shelley, who would go on to author the classic novel Frankenstein (1818).
Hambling’s sculpture was made possible through the fundraising campaign “Mary on the Green,” launched 10 years ago with the aim of memorializing Wollstonecraft and diversifying London’s monuments, 90% of which commemorate men. In 2019, the campaign reached its target of £143,300 (~$189,695) needed to fund the work.
But Hambling’s decision to include a nude female body in her piece, specifically a slender, conventionally attractive one, has been viewed by some as inconsistent with Wollstonecraft’s feminist achievements. “An incredible mind reduced to a Barbie doll on a mound,” reads one Tweet.
Another Twitter user shared a side-by-side comparison of the new sculpture and a contemporary oil portrait of Wollstonecraft — gray-haired, clothed, and comparably plump. Though Hambling’s figure is not meant to be a likeness of Wollstonecraft, representing instead “the everywoman,” people have noted that its idealized proportions are hardly universal.
The artist defended the portrayal, telling the Evening Standard, “As far as I know, she’s more or less the shape we’d all like to be.”
The controversy around Hambling’s work is redolent of another recent polemic over a statue that was intended to empower women. Luciano Garbati’s “Medusa With The Head of Perseus,” a seven-foot-tall nude bronze, was recently installed across the street from a federal courthouse in New York City where convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein was tried. Garbati sought to reimagine the Greek myth of Medusa so as to revindicate its female protagonist, but the statue similarly came under scrutiny for what some saw as an overly sexualized representation — a male-centric vision of women, complete with full breasts, a flat stomach, and hairless genitalia.
That very last accusation, at least, cannot be leveled at Hammond’s rendering. The figure in the Wollstonecraft memorial features a prominently un-manicured pelvic area, leading the feminist publication Jezebel to run the headline, “New ‘Everywoman’ Statue Goes Bush-Out for Feminism.”
Though Jezebel staffer Emily Alford seemed to sincerely applaud its “truly magnificent bush,” her piece echoed larger concerns with the work. “She’s certainly the shape contemporary media has told us men would like us to be, just like the old Vindication advocated,” she wrote.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.