Statue honouring Mary Wollstonecraft draws attention, criticism, and praise in Newington Green

Statue honouring Mary Wollstonecraft draws attention, criticism, and praise in Newington Green
Statue honouring Mary Wollstonecraft by British artist Maggi Hambling. © IOANA MARINESCU
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After a decade of volunteers working to raise the needed funds, a statue honouring the life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft was finally unveiled yesterday in Newington Green in North London. Just barely a day in its new home, the statue, much like Wollstonecraft herself, is already making waves and dividing opinions.

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft painted by John Opie in 1797.
Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft (c. 1797) by John Opie. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Born in 1759, Wollstonecraft led an extraordinary life, particularly for a woman of her time. As a child she was abused by her father, who was an alcoholic that squandered away the family’s money. Without having received a formal education, Wollstonecraft went on to become an author and advocate for women’s rights. At just 25, she opened a boarding school for girls at Newington Green. She died prematurely at the age of 38 just after giving birth to her daughter, Mary Shelley, the renowned novelist. Wollstonecraft’s work earned her the title of the “mother of feminism” and if she hadn’t died so young, she assuredly would have gone on to do even more for women.

It was Wollstonecraft’s legacy, but the lack of knowledge of her work amongst people today that sparked the initiative, called The Mary Wollstonecraft Memorial Project, to memorialise her. “People haven’t heard of Mary Wollstonecraft and when you discover more about her, that is actually quite astonishing,” writer Bee Rowlatt, who led the project, told the Guardian.

Over the last 10 years, Rawlett and other volunteers worked to raise the £143,000 needed for the work and commissioned British artist Maggi Hambling to create the ode to Wollstonecraft.

Hambling’s statue is meant to represent the “everywoman” as a for of respect paid to Wollstonecraft who helped pave the way for women’s rights. With its installation, the statue is now one of very few statues of women across the UK; however, it’s already ruffled a lot of feathers.

The statue is made of silvered-bronze and a sweeping, almost fluid-like, plinth, meant to be a stark contrast to the pedestals that uphold the thousands of statues of men across the country. At the top of Hambling’s work is a small, nude woman and it’s the fact that she’s nude, and the reason behind the choice, that has drawn a lot of criticism.

Silvered-bronze statue depicting a nude female by Maggi Hambling honouring Mary Wollstonecraft
Statue honouring Mary Wollstonecraft by British artist Maggi Hambling. © IOANA MARINESCU

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s headline in the Guardian sums up frustrations well stating: “Why I hate the Mary Wollstonecraft statue: would a man be ‘honoured’ with his schlong out?” Cosslett goes on to reprimand the conventional beauty standards portrayed in the figure by Hambling citing issue, as well, with the notion of the “everywoman” due to its objectification.  Journalist Mona Eltahawy took to Twitter saying, “Again: nudity is not the issue. What is being conveyed and for whose gaze is. Why, after years of so few statues of women, is the naked female form of statues being erected for & about women?”

“There is no reason to depict Mary naked unless you are trying to be edgy to provoke debate,” tweeted writer Tracy King, echoing frustrations. “Statues of named men get to be clothed because the focus is on their work and achievements. Meanwhile, women walking or jogging through parks experience high rates of sexual harassment because our bodies are considered public property.”

Of course, just as many have criticised the statue, it has also received praise. “[Wollstonecraft’s] a lot weirder and ickier and more surreal than most [people] realise,” Dr Sophie Coulombeau said according to the BBC. The historian continued that she thinks “Hambling gets it,” and that hopefully, those against it are inspired to seek out and read Wollstonecraft’s works.

Another who “loved” the statue was Dr Fern Riddle, also a historian. “It reminds me of Metropolis crossed with the birth of Venus,” she said. “I don’t see ‘me’ in that figure, but I wouldn’t see ‘me’ in a figurine of a fully dressed Mary either. I just like that it’s here, and that anyone can interpret it how they want.”

Hambling, too, has joined in to defend her work stating” “This sculpture encourages a visual conversation with the obstacles Ms Wollstonecraft overcame, the ideals she strived for, and what she made happen.” She continued that naysayers “are not reading the word, the important word, which is on the plinth, quite clearly ‘for’ Mary Wollstonecraft, it’s not ‘of’ Mary Wollstonecraft.

“Clothes define people and restrict people, they restrict people’s reaction. She’s naked and she’s every woman. Most male historic statues are way over life-size. My point was that the female figure doesn’t need to dominate to be powerful. It’s been compared to a rocket of hope going up to the sky, tracking the fight for female empowerment Wollstonecraft started.”

“I think Maggi stands the test of time,” said Rowlatt. “People do catch up in the end.”