Pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft finally had a statue unveiled of her last month, but it left a sour metallic taste in the mouths of many.
After a year of tearing down statues of morally corrupt men, it would be nice to celebrate raising a sculpture of someone who represents the ideals we wish to live by. Mary Wollstonecraft could be considered one such person, known as “the mother of feminism” and the author of countless political and philosophical works. A woman who advocated for equality and the education of women. A woman who wished for women to have not “power over men; but over themselves” was finally given a memorial statue in London’s Newton Green last month.
When hearing this news, I was excited to see Wollstonecraft raised tall and proud. Finally we get to see a woman as a vision of wisdom, standing next to the men who have been on that pedestal for years. Finally, we get to see a woman celebrated for her intelligence and not just her appearance.
It would be an understatement to say that I was disappointed when Maggi Hambling’s memorial to this pioneering feminist was revealed. It certainly wasn’t the traditional image of a celebrated philosopher. A violent mass of silver bodies protrudes into the air as the figure of Wollstonecraft emerges: completely naked. She appears as a kind of a sexy cyborg lady with a toned torso, topped off with a perfect pair of chrome breasts. The work was described as challenging the traditional statue, “by elevating an idea, personifying the spirit, rather than depicting the individual.” Apart from the spirit of a horny Doctor Who fan, I’m not quite sure what Hambling was trying to emanate.
But Hambling thinks we’re the ones who’ve got it all wrong. If you read the engraving on the plinth it is “quite clearly for Mary Wollstonecraft, it's not of Mary Wollstonecraft.” If the statue is for her, then frankly I think she would have been insulted. Hambling explains that the reason she is naked is to depict an “every woman” without the “restrictions” of clothing. I fail to see how the naked torso is any less constraining than a pair of pants. Her naked body is not one of an “every woman”, but one of an idealised woman. A woman that so many of us try and fail to be. It is not what most women look like at all. We have flab, we sag, we have scars. We don’t look like some shiny, robotic, sex doll.
Look, I have nothing against pushing artistic boundaries and I have nothing against naked bodies. Mary herself was a revolutionary and open to progressive ideas. However, this isn’t the kind of revolution she wanted. Education was what she strove for. After struggling to find opportunities as a woman, she succeeded in opening a girls-only boarding school with her sisters. She later worked as a governess, after which she pursued a career as writer. She was involved in many literary circles of her time, amongst radicals such as Thomas Paine and William Godwin, whom she later married. She published her most famous work A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, aged 33. In this work she imagines an educational revolution in which women are given the same opportunities as men. A system which not only benefits women, but everyone.
Her message was that women should spend their time sharpening their minds, not enhancing their beauty as they are taught from such a young age to do. In a famous passage she quotes: “Taught from their infancy, that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”
It seems today, 200 years after Wollstonecraft penned her Vindication, we are still in this prison. A survey published last year by the Mental Health Foundation found that 46% of girls felt that their body image causes them to worry “often” or “always”, whereas 45% of women felt depressed because of their body image. I’m sure I can then speak on behalf of many women when saying that I had issues with my own body growing up. So much so that I spent most of my adolescence fussing over my looks. I wasted precious time, caring more about how flat my tummy was, restricting my diet and obsessively exercising, rather than mastering a skill or honing any talents. Now that I’m more comfortable with myself, I certainly feel like I’m making up for the lost time.
For me, the Hambling statue is just another gilt cage. Another beautiful figure to worship. When we are taught to idolise beauty, we often forget that there is more to life. I seek, like Wollstonecraft, to be educated. This is where our sceptre lies. For beauty fades, and then what is left? We must, as Wollstonecraft said, “strengthen the female mind by enlarging it”, and only then will there be “an end to blind obedience.”