Mary Wollstonecraft as a nude ‘everywoman’— fitting tribute or disrespectful cliché?

Laura Stewart-Liberty discusses the controversial new statue of feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft, and how creator Maggi Hambling may have missed the mark.

The power of statues is immense, as we saw this year when the slave trader Edward Colston’s was ripped down and rolled into the Bristol harbour. Some capture the spirit of the person, balancing art with a fitting tribute, such as the Manchester statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, or the bust of Nelson Mandela by the Royal Festival Hall. Others, such as the beady-eyed, thick-necked Cristiano Ronaldo statue in Madeira, or Maggi Hambling’s Oscar Wilde, attract controversy and derision. 

Hambling has turned her hand to another commemorative statue, this time of the enormously influential early feminist philosopher, and author of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, Mary Wollstonecraft

After a ten-year campaign for a Wollstonecraft statue, and £143,300 raised, Hambling’s sculpture stands in North London’s Newington Green, next to the school Wollstonecraft set up in 1784. A silver female nude, atop a tangle of female body parts. An archetypal ‘everywoman’, not of Wollstonecraft, but for her, apparently. Is it a trite, disrespectful female nude joining existing legions, or a defiant tribute to Wollstonecraft, ‘the mother of feminism’? 

Unsurprisingly, Twitter erupted. Many have been quick to point out how absurd, and how disrespectful it would be for a commemorative statue of, say, Nelson Mandela to feature him stripped down.

Hambling has quickly responded to criticism, explaining that the ‘point is that she has to be naked because clothes define people, and we all know that clothes are limiting’. 

One only has to look at the Telegraph’s recent coverage of the Vice-President elect Kamala Harris’ appearance to know that Hambling has a point.  Apparently, ‘Strength actually lies in a soft and subtle approach now, instead of the traditional bold red lip and fully lined eyes.’ Sadly, the modern requirements that come with having a female body mean that even the fact that Hambling’s bronze nude is sporting a ‘full bush’ is almost radical in and of itself.

But, even in 2020, are women and girls’ bodies not scrutinised more ruthlessly than the clothes on their backs? Thanks to fashion magazines and social media, natural features of the female body—looking at you, hip-dips and cellulite— which until recently we didn’t have names for, have been demonised. Capitalising on manufactured self-loathing, surgical and cosmetic cures for these ‘ailments’ are sold back to women. 

Hambling adds that her bronze everywoman is ‘more or less the shape we’d all like to be’. Clearly not the words of someone who understands the monumental impact social media and pornography have had on perceptions of female beauty, or the fierce clap-back of the body positivity movement. 

Somehow, over two hundred years after Wollstonecraft’s death, and despite her immeasurable lasting impact on women’s rights, the female body faces a set of challenges specific to the porn-saturated 21st Century.  

It is not for compliance to Victorian modesty that a tribute to Wollstonecraft needs her clothes, but for a rejection of the liberal feminist (read: capitalist) agenda that tells us a naked woman is an inherently empowered woman. In this brave new world where Instagram models describe their feeds as a ‘sexy, feminist magazine’, maybe the most subversive thing Hambling could have done would be leaving Mary with her coat on. 

Hambling goes on to claim critics have ‘totally missed the point’, stressing her statue is ‘not an idea ‘of’ Mary Wollstonecraft naked… she’s everywoman’. 

For arguments sake, let’s say we have missed ‘the point’. Perhaps, it is a tribute to the female form, following in the tradition of palaeolithic fertility sculptures like the Venus of Willendorf

With increasingly strict rules for performing femininity, from make-up, clothing, and depilation, to the normalisation of cosmetic surgery, perhaps the artist and the commissioners are paying tribute to a natural version of the female body that some fear is disappearing. A commendable aim. 

But Hambling has fallen into the cliché trap of the female nude as muse, like so many before her. Ancient art depicting the female form is considered to have signified a celebration of fertility and the miracle of the female body. Unfortunately, Hambling’s work joins a visual culture and modern oeuvre of art that seems hellbent on reducing women to the perceived beauty of their naked forms. A 1989 work by the Guerilla Girls titled Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum? recounts the staggering stat that ‘only 5% of the artists in the modern arts section are women, but 85% of the nudes are female’.

Thirty years on, do iconic 18th century feminists really have to be naked to get a statue? Did we really need another ideal, another depiction of a generic female form?

A 2016 New Statesman article on gender inequality in UK statues shows that over 50% of women in the few statues that depict them in the UK are of allegorical, archetypal, and mythological figures. Think the Virgin Mary or ‘Justice’, and now, Hambling’s ‘everywoman’. 

Hambling has said she hopes her work will reflect ‘the vital contemporary discourse for all that is still to be achieved.’ Since its unveiling on 10 November, the statue has been covered with masking tape and a tongue in cheek facemask-turned-cape. Perhaps this will tell Hambling all she needs to know about ‘contemporary discourse’.

Artwork by Laura Stewart-Liberty.

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