Deborah Yaffe

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Mother of controversy

By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 19 2020 02:00PM

Some years ago – six? Ten? – I stumbled across a mention of an intriguing campaign to raise money for a statue of Mary Wollstonecraft, to be erected in the north London neighborhood where she established a girls’ school and launched her writing career.


Wollstonecraft, who died in 1797 at the age of thirty-eight, is the mother of all of us who call ourselves feminists. She believed that women were rational beings, just as capable as men of self-determination and self-improvement. But, she argued, conventional modes of female education all too often transformed girls into ignorant, trivial adults, good for little more than ornamenting the drawing-room.


She wrote all that down, and she published it, and she tried to live by her beliefs. She embraced revolutionary modes of thought at a time when such views terrified the English state. She traveled alone, fell in love, had sex outside of marriage. She had her heart broken, and she tried unsuccessfully to kill herself. She died from complications of childbirth. Wollstonecraft was radical, brave, uncompromising in her integrity, and ahead of her time. Because of that, she was often unhappy. We are in her debt.


Wollstonecraft’s name appears nowhere in Jane Austen’s novels or surviving letters, but from time to time an echo of her ideas rises from Austen’s pages: when Mrs. Croft, in Persuasion, chides her brother for talking “as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures”; or when Elizabeth Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, refuses to be cowed by rank, insisting that she plans “to act in that manner which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness”; or when Fanny Price, in Mansfield Park, reminds Henry Crawford, “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”


Naturally, I gave some money to the statue campaign. Then I forgot all about it.


Last week, the statue finally went up. And. . . oh, dear.



A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft, by Maggi Hambling
A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft, by Maggi Hambling

The finished product is a silvery corkscrew of female forms out of which rises a naked woman with a remarkably long neck, perky breasts, and prominent pubic hair. According to the artist, Maggi Hambling, the nude is not intended to represent Wollstonecraft – the statue is “for” her, not “of” her – but rather an Everywoman born out of the feminist struggle for emancipation.


Public reaction has been swift and largely negative. (See accounts of the controversy here, here, and here.) On Twitter, feminist writers and artists wondered why a woman famed for her ideas should be represented by a naked body – and a conventionally attractive naked body, at that. (“Who knew Wollstonecraft was a gym rat with six-pack abs?” tweeted the novelist Natalie Danford.)


“What a colossal waste. so so disappointing,” added Caroline Criado-Perez, the writer and journalist whose campaign to get a woman on the UK’s currency helped bring us the Jane Austen banknote. “This feels disrespectful to Wollstonecraft herself.”


Others suggested the statue campaign should have opted for the runner-up design, a more traditional portrait of Wollstonecraft (with her clothes on) holding a quill pen, her hand resting on a stack of books.



Alternate statue design, by Martin Jennings
Alternate statue design, by Martin Jennings


I’m no art critic, but neither design seems quite right to me: the new statue says nothing specific about Wollstonecraft and makes for an uneasy fit with her major concerns, but the runner-up is too bland and conventional to convey her radicalism.


There’s an ironic Janeite footnote to this story: The losing design was by sculptor Martin Jennings, whose proposal for an Austen sculpture, to be placed in the Inner Close of Winchester Cathedral, was rejected last year after a public outcry.


Apparently, it’s not easy to make great women into public art, and there’s a reason for that: We lack models for how to do it, because we don’t have much public art about great women, a deficit that the campaign for a Wollstonecraft statue was partly designed to address. Nudity, abstraction, artistic unconventionality – every vexed question becomes more so when the representation of the less-often-represented is at stake. The sad saga of the Wollstonecraft statue seems destined to become a cautionary tale.


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