Photo Credit: engraving by James Heath, ca. 1797, after a painting by John Opie.
On Tuesday, November 10, the British sculptor Maggi Hambling’s new monument to Mary Wollstonecraft was unveiled on Newington Green, in North London – and almost immediately, there was an uproar.
On social media and in newspapers, the monument was variously decried (“What the actual fuck is this?”) and mocked as “a melted World Cup topped by a silver Barbie Doll”. “But” – replied Bee Rowlatt, writer and spokesperson for Mary on the Green, the campaign that brought us the statue: “can I just say: my Barbie never had a bush that big!”
Inspired by Wollstonecraft’s claim to be “the first of a new genus” and cast in silvered bronze, “A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft” consists of a small naked woman emerging from a molten spear of metal perched on a granite plinth engraved with one of her most famous dicta: “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.”
“No photograph does its Bacofoil badness justice,” the British critic Rachel Cooke recently groused in The Guardian: “Its ill-considered site means that it stands in a mud bath. The typeface on its plinth ranks with Comic Sans when it comes to inelegance. The tiny proportions of the naked female figure that tops it bring to mind a 1970s Pippa doll, a toy that, even as a child, I identified as utterly pathetic.”
The monument stands near the nonconformist chapel where Wollstonecraft heard her friend and mentor, Richard Price, preach; because of the philosopher’s roots there, Newington Green is considered the birthplace of British feminism. Mary on the Green had been campaigning for a monument in this space for ten years – and has stood by the design of Maggi Hambling. The naked woman, Mary on the Green said on its website, represents “an everywoman” that “emerges out of organic matter, almost like a birth.”
As a co-founder of the Mary Wollstonecraft Philosophical Society, I had expected a more traditional work. The original plan was to erect a statue. There are no statues of Wollstonecraft anywhere in England, and very few statues of women generally. (Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women, counted twenty-five statues in England of non-royal, historical women to 498 statues of men.)
Some people have found the work itself quite beautiful in situ. Historian Hannah Dawson went to see it and reported that she found a ‘completely beautiful sculpture in the setting sun, surrounded by such life and bursting conversation.’
But why a naked woman? Why not represent Wollstonecraft herself, with clothes on?
The idea of the emerging woman is of course very close to Wollstonecraft’s heart. She wanted women to emerge from the ignorant and animal life in which they were kept, to flourish as rational and political beings, to become independent of men.
And there is also a point to the female mass she is emerging from: Wollstonecraft was very critical of the biblical story that had Eve created from Adam’s rib. Woman does not emerge from man. But nor does she emerge from a purely female essence. Both men and women, Wollstonecraft argued, are modelled in god’s image. They are a combination of reason and emotions, capable of moral growth. They are not essentially different.
Wollstonecraft did write about the body. Health, exercise and diet are an important part of her educational theory. There is no reason, she says, why women should be less strong than men, why they should not develop muscle and stamina through outdoor exercise.
And women’s bodies play a part in her writings on the raising of children. A fan of Rousseau, she believes that mothers should breastfeed their own children rather than send them out to wetnurses. And that requires a healthy diet, and a healthy lifestyle.
But none of this translates into a cult of the female body. No woman, as far as she is concerned, has a duty to become a mother. And outside of motherhood and general health, Wollstonecraft has very little to say about women’s bodies, to the extent that she does not seem to care, particularly about female anatomical markers in her classification of humans into men and women. When, in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she gives a list of ‘exceptional women’, alongside Catherine the Great, the medieval philosopher Heloise, and her mentor Catherine Macaulay, she names Madame d’Eon. D’Eon was a middle-aged French diplomat, known for prowess in dueling, and a trans woman.
It is not clear what Wollstonecraft would have made of the accent Hambling placed on the female form. Hambling is a sculptor, so form has to matter. But it also goes counter to what Wollstonecraft believed, that what is essential about women is their humanity, their reason, and that their oppression comes from society’s insistence on bringing them back to their bodies, making them beautiful and fragile.
Wollstonecraft would relate to the rage of some women at the way the monument embodies the female form in a particular shape, as if to vindicate a particular ideal of beauty that we have to aspire to in order to be recognized as existing.
But in spite of the controversy and discontent, and, I believe, false projection of Wollstonecraft as a defender of ‘femaleness’, there is much to celebrate about the statue.
The very fact that it is controversial means that people are, once again, talking about Wollstonecraft. The work, like Hambling’s other sculptures such as her Conversation with Oscar Wilde and Scallop (in honour of Benjamin Britten), generates debate, and that seems to me a fine outcome.
The fact that the statue is located in Newington Green, the centre of the Wollstonecraft Society’s activities, means that it’s also quite easy for visitors to become more informed about the philosopher after they have viewed the work. So we don’t need to fear that the wrong message will be spread. Because of the controversy, Wollstonecraft’s main message – Use your reason! – is coming forth loud and clear.
Sandrine Bergès is associate professor in philosophy at Bilkent University in Ankara. Her publications include: Sophie de Grouchy’s Letters on Sympathy (with Eric Schliesser), The Wollstonecraftian Mind (with Eileen Hunt Botting and Alan Coffee), Women and Autonomy (with Alberto Siani)The Social and Political Philosophy of Mary Wollstonecraft (with Alan Coffee) A Feminist Perspective on Virtue Ethics and The Routledge Companion to Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.