The Mary Wollstonecraft statue
Updated: Mar 1
Of late, there’s been a fair amount of controversy around the addition of the Mary Wollstonecraft monument to Islington. But who was Mary Wollstonecraft? What did she do? And what has managed to rile people up about this statue?
Who was Mary Wollstonecraft?
Mary Wollstonecraft, a women’s rights advocate and prolific writer, was born on the 27th of April 1759 in London, England, and died Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin on the 10th of September 1797.
She was abused by her father alongside her mother and received minimal formal education, prompting her to educate herself.
After her solo education, Wollstonecraft went on to display a woman’s independent abilities and mind, and intelligence alongside her sister Eliza and friend Fanny Blood. She did this at the girls’ boarding school she founded in 1784 on Newington Green and, throughout its brief life, it achieved a prestigious reputation that would serve only as the beginning of Wollstonecraft’s journey and revolutionary ideas about the necessity of equality between men and women in education. She strongly believed and conveyed that the government was responsible for this change.
She is still considered a classic of feminism and is highly held for her passion surrounding educational and social equality for women. She was daughter to a farmer, taught at schools and worked as a governess. In 1788 she began to work as a translator for the publisher Joseph Johnson in London where she published several of her own works including Mary: A Fiction that same year.
She had a daughter, Fanny, in 1794 by the American businessman and author, Gilbert Imlay. Nonetheless, a year later, she attempted suicide over the breaking down of their relationship.
Wollstonecraft returned to Joseph Johnson in London and joined a renowned radical group that gathered at his home. After marrying William Godwin, English journalist and political philosopher, in 1797, she had a second child, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. However, she died 11 days after giving birth due to complications.
Among other feminists of the time, Wollstonecraft fought for equal education among men and women alike, for the betterment of society as a whole and published many works to this effect, including A Vindication of the Rights of Woman which caused much controversy. Though it brought about no immediate effects, in the 1840s, members of American and European women’s movements brought back a few of the book’s principles.
A classic of ‘rationalist feminism’, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman set the stage for the women’s rights movement in the Western world. But it wasn’t just here that Wollstonecraft proved the capabilities of women in society.
When her school met its close in 1786, Wollstonecraft did not give in, publishing her first work about the vital education of girls everywhere, it was titled Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. It was released in the final stages of the French Revolution, which did not result in the equality she and other radicals anticipated.
In her fighting works to follow, Wollstonecraft laid down her principals. She ‘argued that the faculties of reason and rationality are present in all human beings’ therefore women must be allowed equal right to contribute to society’s progress. She stated that her “main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue” (Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, xxxv).
Thus, Mary Wollstonecraft set into motion the modern, rational argument for women’s rights in our society, starting at the beginning, with the equal upbringing and education of men and women alike.
As a result of her influence, she has been the subject of many other works, including her husband’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman and collections of letters in the 20th century.
Why was she immortalised with a statue?
As a prominent classic feminist, and the mother of feminism, it was practically mandatory Mary Wollstonecraft get a statue. Her writing and her personal struggles alike inspired and engendered much progress for gender equality, even now, over a century after her death.
Her undertakings were one important step in the progress we’ve made as a society. She has been immortalised to remember that, as we remember the soldiers of war, she is a woman who didn’t get to see the impact of her actions take the effect they did. And in addition, a woman whose rebellion and courage were nearly forgotten after her early death.
The statue, which was campaigned for over the course of a decade, was finally erected by artist Maggi Hambling in Newington Green (the site of Wollstonecraft’s boarding school), Islington at the cost of £143,000. Not only was this an important day for the ‘mother of feminism’ but also for the continued progress in our society’s journey towards gender equality.
Within London, more than 90% of the monuments celebrate men, making the unveiling of this statue even more momentous (if you’ll pardon the pun). Not only this, but this statue is believed to be the world’s first memorial celebrating Mary Wollstonecraft.
Why has this statue led to controversy and what are the perspectives?
However, many people are upset with the end product of this decade’s campaign. Not only is the form of this statue not a lifelike portrayal of Wollstonecraft, it’s also naked?
There is much debate between the artist and critics, such as feminist writer Caitlin Moran, over the decision not to represent Wollstonecraft’s own body, and to make the statue naked.
A lot of this controversy focuses on the choice to make the statue naked, flaunting an ‘every woman’s’ desired form, in a way that they believe defeats the purpose of the statue.
This use of nakedness in comparison to the many clothed male statues and monuments across the world is a clear sign of the gender inequality still present in society that is clearly evident to the people rejecting the statue. As writer Tracy King said, “statues of named men get to be clothed because the focus is on their work and achievements” but women, and this statue in particular aren’t getting the same treatment, still being ‘considered public property’.
The artist, Maggi Hambling, said her reasoning behind making the statue naked, and different from the reality of Wollstonecraft, was that "clothes define people and restrict people, they restrict people’s reaction. She’s named and she’s every woman”. She also pointed out that it is “quite clearly ‘for’ Mary Wollstonecraft, it’s not ‘of’ Mary Wollstonecraft.”
Supporters of the statue have complimented the design in particular. Historian Dr. Fern Riddle said “it reminds [her] of Metropolis crossed with the birth of Venus,” and enjoys the fact that the statue exists alone, open to interpretation for all those who get to see it.
Alongside that, another historian, Dr. Sophie Coulombeau recommended those with strong opinions to read Wollstonecraft’s work. She highlighted how much “weirder and ickier and more surreal” Wollstonecraft was and that she believes the artist truly captured that essence in this statue.
Needless to say, this statue’s existence alone makes the viewer think a lot about the progress we’ve made in gender equality (for better or for worse) and reminds us of Wollstonecraft’s impact.
But where do you stand? Do you think Hambling has perfectly captured the message? Or do you think Wollstonecraft should have been clothed and 10 feet tall? Why are debates about statues of women centred around physical appearance?
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