Feminism

Is the Mary Wollstonecraft Statue Iconography or Misogyny?

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There are only 174 statues in the UK that depict female figures. When we compare this to the 828 statues of memorialised men, a clear disparity between our monuments and a distinct indication of Britain’s misogynistic history emerges, even to the untrained eye. However, the problem with female statues lies even deeper in their depiction and remembrance. 

If you are a woman and one of the 174 statues counted in the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association’s database, the chances of being memorialised significantly increases if you happen to be a representation of ‘Justice’, ‘Art’, ‘Peace’ or the Virgin Mary herself. 

In fact, almost half of 174 female statues are of allegorical figures, and even then predominantly focused on art based subjects with sciences and mathematics are still being dominated by male monuments. Only 80 statues are named, but still the many ‘names’ being commemorated are ‘Headless Nymph’ and ‘Woman with Fish’. If you take out Queen Victoria, the number is whittled down to only 25 statues of historical, non-royal women which only reflects 2.7% of the database.

There’s a serious problem with our historical depiction of female figures. The erection of statues is the pinnacle representation of our perception of women; naked, flawless and allegorical. But, what’s more serious is that these attitudes aren’t being left in the pretence of historical insensitivity, and the same statues are being erected even today. The Mary Wollstonecraft statue here is a highly relevant example which was put up on display at Newington Green on the 10th of November. 

Wollstonecraft could be considered the first pioneer of feminism. The publication of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ presented ‘radical’ reform of the education system and campaigned for women’s rights in employment and social setting. Her premature death in childbirth largely left her marginalised in the memory of female campaigning, but her contribution was certainly significant in history and highly deserving of a memorialisation in a statue.

 But the statue erected, a sculpture by the artist Maggi Hambling, provoked huge backlash online largely because it was a direct depiction of these ‘nameless’ traits. The main criticism came from the naked figure of a woman placed on top of the design. It seems as though society has progressed past the need for clothes for radical feminists with male notable figures permitted to be presented as properly emblematic of their profession and not of their nude bodies. For a woman to be reduced to a minuscule ‘caricature’ is simply demeaning. 

The artist herself responded by saying ‘the point is that she has to be naked because clothes define people’ to the Evening Standard. But as a historical character, the celebration of her achievement is once again undermined by this allegorical version of femininity. The statue is supposed to represent ‘the Everywoman’, but again there’s this consistent rhetoric of historical women not being commemorated in the same way that men are. The statue of John Keats for example, a poet in the same time period, clearly defines him as an amalgamation of his success and a dedication to him as an individual. It’s then somewhat ironic to think that Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist, is commemorated by a naked female figure of perfection, who also happens to have, as a critic argued, ‘super perky breasts.’

We can do better with our memorialisation of women. It’s progress that these people are being recognised, but to match these steps forward there has to be some accountability as to how they’re remembered, or else it is simply in vain. 

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