Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th-century English writer and philosopher often dubbed the “mother of feminism,” received a new tribute on Tuesday: a statue in a London park meant to honor her life and work.
But almost immediately after its unveiling, the artwork – which cost £143,300 (about $190,000) and was a decade in the making – had attracted public ridicule and criticisms of sexism.
The sculpture comprises a small figurine of a naked woman, who many said doesn’t resemble Wollstonecraft, perched on top of a larger, twisting mass of silver. It all sits on a black base engraved with a famous Wollstonecraft quote: “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.”
In a video posted by the campaign behind the statue on Tuesday, artist Maggi Hambling said that her work “involves this tower of intermingling female forms culminating in the figure of the woman at the top who is challenging, and ready to challenge, the world.”
The campaign, called Mary on the Green, said on its website that the naked woman represents “an everywoman” that “emerges out of organic matter, almost like a birth.”
But many critics didn’t see it that way – nor did they appreciate the use of female nudity in a statue designed to celebrate Wollstonecraft’s efforts to improve women’s rights.
Activist and author Caroline Criado Perez, who successfully campaigned for a statue of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett to be erected in London’s Parliament Square, and helped put Jane Austen on the £10 note, called the Wollstonecraft sculpture “a colossal waste” and “so disappointing.”
“This feels disrespectful to Wollstonecraft herself and isn’t that the most important part?” she wrote on Twitter. “In Wollstonecraft’s own words: ‘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.’ Just sad, really sad.”
Writer Tracy King also decried the statue as “a shocking waste of an opportunity that can’t be undone.”
“Statues of named men get to be clothed because the focus is on their work and achievements,” she tweeted on Tuesday. “Meanwhile, women walking or jogging through parks experience high rates of sexual harassment because our bodies are considered public property.”
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She added that “there is no reason to depict Mary naked,” and that the statue’s petite, slender body undermines the campaign’s aim of representing the “everywoman.”
Other activists, educators, art historians and members of the public also voiced their scorn online following the unveiling. Some shared an image of a competing design, which had been shortlisted and ultimately rejected, showing a (fully dressed) Wollstonecraft with a quill in one hand and books in the other.
Some critics acknowledged that, despite their misgivings about the statue’s appearance, the original intent had been an important one. Wollstonecraft is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers, though the term “feminism” had yet to be coined in her lifetime. In her writings and conversations, she argued that women are not naturally inferior to men, but are limited by societal constraints and lack of access to education.
Describing Hambling as a “challenging artist,” Bee Rowlatt, Chair of the Mary on the Green campaign, which commissioned the statue, said that whilst they “understand that not everyone agrees with the end result,” Wollstonecraft “deserves a memorial that’s as radical as she was.”
“Maggi Hambling’s design was selected in May 2018 through a competitive, consultative process. The design has been in the public domain since then,” she added. “The work celebrates her contribution to society with something that goes beyond the Victorian traditions of putting people on pedestals.”
CNN also reached out to Hambling for her her response to the reactions but a spokesperson said she was unavailable at the time.
The Mary on the Green campaign was launched in 2010 by the Newington Green Action Group, which oversees and plans events at London’s Newington Green park where the statue is located. Newington Green is where Wollstonecraft lived and worked, and she founded a school in the neighborhood.
“Over 90% of London’s monuments celebrate men,” reads the campaign website. “This is set against a population of 51% women.”
The charity Public Monuments and Sculpture Association has a catalog of all 925 public sculptures in the UK. When campaigner Perez analyzed the list, she found that only 158 statues depict women, according to the charity’s website.
Of these, almost half were based on fictional figures, 14 were of the Virgin Mary and 46 were of royalty – meaning there were only 25 statues of historical, non-royal women in the UK.
Recent years have seen growing calls to change this. Since 2018, statues of female suffragettes, writers and activists have been erected in several British cities, including London and Manchester.
Mary on the Green picked Hambling to create the Wollstonecraft statue in 2018, and finally hit its goal of £143,300 in 2019 after years of fundraising
“I wanted to make the sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft to celebrate the life force she was in the battle for freedom,” said Hambling in the campaign video. “She battled for women’s education, for women to have their own thoughts.”
She added that the sculpture was silver because she felt it was “much more (of a) female color than bronze,” and that it could catch the sunlight and “float in space.”
The video showed the statue being installed – from digging a hole for the base and using cranes to lift the statue into place.
“Seeing Maggi Hambling’s artwork go up has caused a sort of volcano of emotions in me,” said Rowlatt in the video. “I’ve always felt it was a huge injustice that people didn’t know who Mary Wollstonecraft was. We’ve gone some way to righting that injustice.”
Late on Tuesday, after the debate over the statue kicked off online, Rowlatt tweeted her thanks for those who had “engaged thoughtfully” with the artwork – adding that “if you don’t like this sculpture there are other campaigns for amazing women that deserve support.”