Maggi Hambling’s “A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft,” was unveiled on November 10, 2020 in Newington Green, London. Image by Grim23 via Wikimedia Commons

What would it take to produce a monument to a renowned woman that inspires admiration rather than scorn? Recently a sculpture by the artist Maggi Hambling commemorating Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was installed in Newington Green, in Islington, London. It comprises an inscribed, polished black base supporting a volcanic spew of silver from which a lilliputian lady sprouts, naked and ready to greet the world. Within moments of its unveiling the online public expressed their horror while critics captured the nuances of its badness: “The shambolic mess looks [like] a Rolls-Royce hood ornament by way of a sketchy Disney Fantasia figure.” By far, the most common criticism has centered on the affront of the figure’s nudity while famous men get to be memorialized with their clothes on. A close second focuses on the artist’s own insistence that this (white, non-disabled, youthful, and, honestly kind of shredded) figure is “everywoman,” and worse yet, “more or less the shape we’d all like to be.” Who is this “we”?

But Hambling’s monument is not alone. It’s one thing for an individual sculpture to dissatisfy both critics and the broader public; it’s another, however, when that sculpture is one among a string of such works that have failed to offer an empowering vision of women or of the struggle for women’s rights in public spaces. It’s not that women have a problem with public monuments; it’s that public monuments have a problem with us.

It has become cliché to remark that public art — the art of committee and consensus — is bland or aesthetically conservative. Recent milestones in the history of women’s rights in both the United States and the United Kingdom, along with the #MeToo movement, have spurred precisely these kinds of committee-based endeavors to break up the male monopoly over monuments in public spaces. The Wollstonecraft memorial is the product of one of these efforts, which aims to redress the gender imbalance in London’s public sculpture. Others include the #MeToo Medusa, which emerged from the Medusa with the Head Project, as well as the group sculpture (motivated by the nonprofit, Monumental Women) featuring Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth, all, improbably, sitting at a table to game-plan universal suffrage . And then there’s “Fearless Girl” (2017) challenging the “Charging Bull” (1989) of Wall Street, commissioned by an asset management company to advertise a self-proclaimed pro-women index fund.

Luciano Garbati’s “Medusa With The Head of Perseus” (2020) (image by and courtesy Francesca Magnani)

All of these works have been criticized, whether because they sexualize women, insist that women can only triumph if they play by men’s rules, infantilize women to satisfy the cynical desires of corporate feminism, or whitewash the history of women’s rights to lull us with the lie that the battle has long been won.

Rather than dwelling on these sculptures as isolated disappointments, we need to see the bigger picture. When we step back to allow that picture to come into view, we see the impossible weight these sculptures bear both to commemorate individual women (whether real or mythical) and to represent a cause, along with the absence of historical precedent for portraying heroic women in civic spaces. In contrast, two millennia of European and American history could be told through a genealogy of equestrian monuments to men, from Marcus Aurelius to Gattamelata, from Confederate generals to Kehinde Wiley’s exhilarating riposte, “Rumors of War” (2019). (And that’s just one genre!) One reason Wiley’s monument succeeds is that it has a heroic model to subvert.

But women have no such models. This isn’t to say that female figures have never featured in public space. Certainly the first half of the 20th century saw a notable push for such civic representation of women. But where the long history of convention and iconography is concerned, the only standard is the personification, whether a toga-clad Liberty, a scale-and-sword-wielding Justice, an unconvincingly armored nation, or a sultry continent (often rendered with distinctions that promote the idea of racial hierarchy). It’s no wonder that recent efforts have failed when, in accepting the brief to universalize a value, stand for a movement, and champion an individual, they end up repeating the failures of the past and transform the person into a symbol. If we have learned anything from Kimberle Crenshaw’s call to recognize intersectionality, it is that no one woman’s body can stand in for all women.

Whether sculptors embrace likeness, opt for abstraction, or go in for symbolism isn’t the point. The point is that they and the committees to which they answer need to decide whether they are recognizing an individual or promoting an ideal. Women have, for too long, been required to be both. 

Sonja Drimmer is a historian of medieval art and architecture. She teaches at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She may be seen @Sonja_Drimmer.