Historians' Watch

Of, or For Mary Wollstonecraft?

Following a decade of agitation and fundraising by the Mary on the Green campaign (MOTG), Newington Green in London became home to a new sculpture for eighteenth-century proto-feminist, author, and icon, Mary Wollstonecraft. Following a public consultation from 2017-2018, the silver-coated bronze figure designed by Maggi Hambling was chosen as the form for the memorial, displayed near to where Wollstonecraft established a school aged 25.

Hambling asserts that it is a sculpture, rather than a statue, that is for Wollstonecraft, not of her.  A video to mark the unveiling of the statue premiered on the Mary on the Green social media profile in which Hambling describes the design as ‘a 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 ‘intermingling’ forms are suggestive of a historic community of women, out of which the more detailed, lone female figure is born into the ‘now’. This design choice is intended to represent the legacy of Wollstonecraft’s feminist work. I disagree that such an objective has been achieved. Conversations I have had with specialists in the last few days have informed my own thoughts on how Wollstonecraft has been misrepresented.

Writer Bee Rowlatt of the MOTG campaign argued previously in HWO that agitation for a Wollstonecraft memorial sculpture would go some way to addressing the issue of the bronze ceiling in Britain:

over nine out of ten of London’s figurative statues are of men, and most cities around the world fare no better. The public art around our everyday pavements tells a story. As of now, that story is that all the greatness was achieved by men, while womankind never looked up from her knitting. That story must be challenged.

If this work is not of Wollstonecraft, but ‘for’ her, as Hambling asserts, we must question to what extent this art object is attuned to Wollstonecraft’s work and legacy. Criticism of the final piece has largely centred on Hambling’s choice to represent the female figure as nude: significantly, it is anatomically detailed in contrast with the original design. Art historian Melissa Gustin observed to me that ‘the figure on the maquette was schematised and abstracted, without individualised or specific features that imply portraiture or allegory,’ rather like Antony Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North.’  The sharp detail of the breasts and pubic hair may be welcomed as a change from traditionally reserved Venus styles of statue which remove or cover pubic hair, in a manner intended to engage the male gaze. ‘The anatomical detail of the nipples and pubic hair,’ Gustin noted, ‘reject the hairless, nippleless bodies of sculptures or paintings of Venus, which depict the goddess of love and sex in the idealised fashions of their days.’

Whether Hambling’s sculpture challenges the male gaze is questionable. When I reached out to other historians on social media to share their perspectives, one asked me to find out the figure’s exercise regime, highlighting the figure’s defined ab muscles. While we are familiar with the neoclassical sculptural interpretation of many male historical figures deploying ripped physiques as a symbol of personal, rather than physical, strength; imposing that bodily ideal on a nude female figure raises issues that resonate with longstanding feminist debates around the politics and representation of women’s bodies. These exclude transgender and gender non-conforming women from the conversation: since the unveiling of the statue on Tuesday morning, transphobic ‘Gender Critical’ activists have ‘dressed’ the figure in a t-shirt in order to combat the issue of the male gaze, but the ‘Adult Human Female’ dictionary definition on the t-shirt has in recent years become shorthand for transphobic discrimination. Such exclusion of transgender women, whose bodies already face such intense scrutiny, further detracts from Hambling’s supposed ‘everywoman’ aim.

Undressing Wollstonecraft’s figure not only detracts from her intellectual accomplishments – it reinforces the art historical tradition that suggests that female figures have to be nude to be displayed. Rowlatt asks ‘one question of every city I visit: is there a statue here of a woman who’s wearing some clothes and isn’t a queen?’ Had Wollstonecraft ever posed for nudes, this aesthetic choice might make sense; as it is, the decision to present her unclothed makes her the subject of a sexualised gaze. At best it is sexy fanfic; at worst, the removal of agency from a long-dead woman who cannot consent to the use of her image. Rawan E. A. Mohamed, an Africanist historian of abolitionism, highlighted to me the more problematic racist undertones of the nude sculpture, noting the prevalence of nude representations of black women as an act of violence by white male oppressors. ‘Black women have been fetishised and eroticised since the early nineteenth century,’ Mohamed told me, ‘and portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory. This depiction of Black women is signified as the Jezebel.’

As we know from multiple biographies, Wollstonecraft’s personal and political lives were inextricably bound up. (see an excellent overview of Wollstonecraft’s life by Barbara Taylor, from 2003.) Following her husband William Godwin’s posthumous publication of her memoirs, which detailed mental health difficulties, suicide attempts, and sexual relationships outside of marriage (including the conception of her first child), Wollstonecraft’s political writings were shunned throughout much of the nineteenth century until Millicent Garrett Fawcett published a new edition of Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1891 (the introduction, the edition states, is by ‘Mrs. Henry Fawcett’). The public reception of Wollstonecraft’s ideas, in short, was always associated with the awareness of her body, and that remained true up to her death after the birth to her second child, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Wollstonecraft’s treatises on enlightenment thought famously argued that calling attention to the body impedes the liberation of women’s minds, and she criticised male philosophers for asserting that women should purely be educated to be please men rather than becoming thinkers independent of male oversight.

Can this naked everywoman figure adequately represent the historical struggles women have been subjected to because of their bodies? Historian of early North America, Ann M. Little, in discussion with me, argued that ‘[Wollstonecraft’s] sexual libertinism was portrayed as essential to her political radicalism and feminism, whereas her writings were focused exclusively on women’s minds, not their bodies or their sex lives.’ In Wollstonecraft’s lifetime, women who flouted convention were commonly depicted as topless or nude by male illustrators, mocking and belittling their intellectual accomplishments. I think, further to Little’s claim, that this illustrative undressing is perhaps a re-enacting of sexual violence in print.

Even if the figure is intended allegorically, as a proud reimagining of the traditional Venus, ‘challenging’ the world, as Hambling argues, we must question how successful such a reconception can be. As Rebecca Senior points out, allegorical sculptures are not free of constraints. If anything, the use of allegory to represent more than the particular biographical identifiable subject, raises yet more questions. Addressing criticism in the Evening Standard, Hambling stated that, ‘as far as I know, she’s more or less the shape we’d all like to be.’ This remark projects idealised views of women’s bodies not only onto the allegorical figure, but onto women in general, creating what amounts to a highly conventional ‘everywoman’–a hackneyed vision of female beauty as slim, toned, and young. ‘The point,’ Hambling says, ‘is that she has to be naked because clothes define people. We all know that clothes are limiting and she is everywoman. […] Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes.’ This sculpture makes Wollstonecraft’s writings inseparable from her nude body; something that two centuries later, women intellectuals are still having to deal with. Given that the sculpture’s subject ‘wish[ed] for women to have power not over men, but over themselves,’ I question whether an attempt to combine ‘everywoman’ into one statue for one named woman was an appropriate aim.  We might instead have been one historical woman closer to breaking through the bronze ceiling.


  1. Um, Godwin didn’t publish her memoirs, did he? He wrote a memoir about her (and very moving it is)

  2. I would be delighted to create a figurative bronze of Mary Wollstencroft – a life sized bronze clearly depicting her as a person of her times and of her accomplishments.
    I would charge only £45,000 for such a statue.
    I had designed a statue of Millicent Fawcett but was told my design would not be considered as I am a male artist.
    I have just created a life sized bronze of holocaust heroine Irena Sendler to be unveiled next spring in Newark on Trent.
    Andrew Lilley

  3. By reading the art historians various critics about this sculpture for the bicentary of Mary Wollstonecraft’s death, I find myself confused. Nudity is not the point, I think. Personally I find this piece of artwork non espressive and voided of soul. Maybe the aesthetic choice of the silver coated bronze makes it looks cold and frozen. To me could be just like a kind of mascotte to embellish a bonnet of a posh car, this one only bigger. The base to represent bodies of women is informed. I don’t catch them. So what the meaning of this aestethic contrast of body form on top, out of an abstract base?
    For example, why not creating a metamorphosed ascended multiple bodies blending really into one?

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