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Back to the roots of feminism – what has the Wollstonecraft statue achieved?

JULIA BARD examines the controversy caused by Maggi Hambling’s tribute to a great Enlightenment thinker unveiled earlier this week

FIFTY years ago a raucous band of women disrupted the finals of the Miss World competition, describing it as a cattle market. 

They sprayed the bouncers with ink, showered the stage with flour bombs and broadcast a fundamental feminist message across the globe, shouting: “We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry!”

Last week, just before the half-centenary of that consciousness-raising protest, a statue to commemorate Mary Wollstonecraft, the visionary Enlightenment thinker, was inaugurated in Newington Green in north London. 

This was the culmination of 10 years’ work by the Mary on the Green campaign to raise funds and obtain planning permission for a statue in this 18th-century public garden in a conservation area on the border of Islington and Hackney.

Wollstonecraft, who was born in 1759, pre-empted by two centuries the Second Wave feminist slogan, “The personal is political.” 

She was driven to write A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by the injustices forced on her and on all 18th-century women, injustices that were invisible and unacknowledged because they were so ubiquitous. 

She had the courage to travel, to break taboos, to make relationships, to soak up the vision of freedom and equality fought for in the French Revolution. 

And she suffered bitterly for trying to break free, not only in her lifetime but in the suppression of her memory and her legacy.

The goal of the Mary on the Green campaign was to provide a memorial that would “be a tangible way to share Wollstonecraft’s vision and ideas. Her presence in physical form will be an inspiration to local young people…” 

In 2017 they chose artist Maggi Hambling to create the sculpture. By 2019 they had raised £143,300 of their £200,000 target, and on November 10 this year the monument was unveiled. 

It was quickly veiled again as protesting feminists “dressed” the bright silver, highly idealised representation of a naked female emerging from an elongated metal blob. 

Soon #MaryWollstonecraft was trending on Twitter, which was buzzing with arguments about the artistic merits or otherwise, and the political and cultural significance of the statue. 

There was great hilarity as well as serious discussion about its meaning and purpose. 

Susan Harrison’s brilliant dramatisation of Wollstonecraft seeing her statue for the first time was joyously shared thousands of times, and social media became a forum for some marvellous absurdity:

“The most egregious part of the sculpture almost masks the fact that it is 2nd rate work from start to finish, insultingly so. Looks like Terminator 2 starring Mary Wollstonecraft.”

“I think for me the main question is what is she hiding in her enormous bush? I’m guessing a couple of Tunnocks tea cakes and a pair of sunglasses #Mary Wollstonecraft.”

There was poignant reflection on how Wollstonecraft suffered for challenging the social order during her tragically short life: “I often walk across Putney Bridge, on the site … from which #MaryWollstonecraft tried to kill herself. For me, [the monument] says nothing about a very brave intellectual who was driven close to despair but persevered.”

And there was a great deal of anger and disappointment: “Can you imagine someone proposing that Shakespeare’s statue should be naked? This is a humiliation of Wollstonecraft and all women (the statue is apparently meant to represent not just Wollstonecraft, but all women!).”

The problem for both the instigators of this monument and the artist is that, as old slave traders have been ceremonially deposed and dumped in the sea, there has been more debate than usual this year about statues and memorialisation. 

Our ideas are more sophisticated than they were before the murder of George Floyd and the wave of Black Lives Matter protests forced people across the board to think about and analyse the purpose and meaning of public memorials. 

The politics of the BLM protesters dovetail with those of many writers and theorists struggling to make our public space reflect the reality of those who live in it, rather than the interests of those with the resources to build on it.

Hambling and the campaign team rallied to defend the monument, saying the statue is for Mary Wollstonecraft, not of Mary Wollstonecraft and, indeed, that’s what it says on the plinth. 

It’s a pity she’s not here to appreciate the gesture but on the remote chance that she’s looking down from an egalitarian paradise, I hope will feel that the rights of woman are being vindicated on Twitter, if not in Newington Green.

What seems to have gone missing from this project is consideration of the complex and multifaceted question of what monuments are for. 

What is the statue for? Who is it for? What and how does it communicate? 

There is a wealth of scholarship on cultural memory which explores the challenge of making public art and memorials that fracture the hegemony of “history written by the victors.” 

As this monument illustrates, iconoclasm and shock tactics are just too superficial for the political task of dislodging centuries — millennia — of patriarchy. 

Hambling said her critics had missed the point — a point which she didn’t feel any need to explain beyond saying of the tiny statue, with its flat stomach and self-supporting breasts, “As far as I know, she’s more or less the shape we’d all like to be.”  

Can she really mean this? Has she bypassed the decades of struggle women have had — and continue to have — to break out of the straitjacket of imperatives and expectations imposed on them? 

Or does she simply not understand the deep and subtle ways in which those imperatives are buried in our psyches, our social relations and our bodies? 

If this statue has achieved anything, it’s to have reminded us that Mary Wollstonecraft’s struggle is nowhere near won. 

But it seems like an expensive and convoluted route back to the foundations of feminism and the women who chanted for all of us: “We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry!”

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