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Mary Keep Your Clothes On: Gender Equality in Civic Statues

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

Go to any public space in Britain and, inevitably, there will be some sort of civic statue to commemorate a person or an event. The last couple of years have thrown into question the value of many of these statues and what they represent. These statues are often little more than monuments to the elites who controlled the spaces.. Following some powerful scenes last summer during the Black Lives Matter protests there has been a lot of interest and discourse about fixing the disparity between what has been represented in civic statues and public art and what we as a society value now. Currently less than 3% of statues in the UK are of non-royal women and, according to the InVisible campaign group, until 2016 the only statue this country had of a non-white woman was Pocahontas. It’s not just those statistics that demonstrate how far we have yet to go. Following the death of Captain Tom there was an immediate discussion about whether he would get a statue in his honour. Currently, there has been little said on what appearance the statue could take but there is one thing that I am certain of: the statue of Captain Tom is unlikely to be represented by a naked, muscular ‘GI Joe’ type figure. What a scandal! Could you imagine the uproar? Why on earth am I making such a ridiculous suggestion about how Captain Tom could be represented in a commemorative statue? Well, dear reader, let me take you back through the mists of time to last autumn. It is a chilly November morning and I am having an alfresco coffee on Newington Green, a public space in North London nestled between the borders of Islington and Hackney. The green itself is well used with a small children’s playground and various dog walkers; but the space has recently become vastly more crowded as people from all walks of life have come to get a glimpse of the now infamous statue of Mary Wollstonecraft. It was hard to gauge the opinion of every visitor that morning but those I spoke to were mainly frustrated that a woman admired by so many was commemorated by a Barbie-sized and Barbie-shaped naked, silver woman.

I’d been aware of Wollstonecraft’s work since moving to Newington Green in the summer of 2018. My partner and his family have lived in the area for 40+ years and they were keen to introduce me to the area’s rich history of activism. Mary Wollstonecraft lived in Newington Green from 1784 – 1792 and in her short life (she died at 38 shortly after giving birth to her daughter Mary who would go on to become author Mary Shelley) she instigated a fight for equal rights for women, education and feminism. In particular, arguing for a broader syllabus of education for young women instead of being socialised to be dependent on men. Many see her now as the ‘Mother of Feminism’. Her work prepared the way for others to fight for the rights of women. Arguably, without Mary Wollstonecraft there would have been no women’s suffrage, more women writers and more equal access to education for girls. There has been a campaign for a statue of Mary for the last ten years. and so the commemoration of Wollstonecraft’s work is significant to many, especially feminists. So what’s the problem with the way Wollstonecraft’s work has been commemorated? The main criticism comes from the portrayal of a naked women and the objectification of the female form. The artist Maggie Hambling says; that the statue is not of Mary Wollstonecraft but rather for her and that the naked figure on top of the sculpture represents ‘everywoman’. Statues, inevitably, reflect what and whom our society values and wishes to commemorate. So, let's look at the Wollstonecraft’s statue through that lens. The most obvious feature is that of a nude woman. Nudity is nothing new in statues; but where nudity has mostly been used as a celebration of the beauty of the human body (Statue of St David, Venus de Milo) the use of it here feels gratuitous and unnecessary. One person who I asked what they thought of the statue on that November morning summed it up perfectly; ‘I’m afraid the first word that comes to mind, is “Tits.”’ The tradition of civic commemorative statues has usually been a bronze rendering of the likeness of the person, or a bust displayed on a plinth. These statues may not be viewed as ground-breaking or engaging but at least they are wearing clothes.

Wollstonecraft’s statue of a miniscule, dainty figure has a different tone to that of other traditional civic statues,which can be viewed as diminishing Wollstonecraft’s work and the cause of feminism in general. It can also be seen as reflective of the idea that women tend to have to make themselves ‘smaller’ in order to fit into society’s expectations of what women should be doing. This immediately draws into question thoughts on intersectional feminism and what bodies are acceptable to be celebrated. If Hambling’s statue is, in fact, for every woman, then why has she chosen to portray a body so slender and toned? A body that is so obviously out of reach for most women. Hambling’s figure shows no sign of the aging process or any disability and is quite clearly white. This would be understandable if the statue was of Mary Wollstonecraft but with Hambling’s insistence that it represents every woman it draws into question what sort of woman is acceptable to be represented.

Conversely when we think of how Captain Tom will be commemorated, chances are he will be representing himself not ‘every man’, and will most likely be portrayed in the way most of us met him. Old, frail yet dignified and using a Zimmer frame. This provocative statue of Mary Wollstonecraft has indeed highlighted her work, and I wonder if Hambling was being deliberate in creating such a divisive piece of public art in order to raise awareness of her. Every time I walk past the Green and see the statue dedicated to Mary I feel a contradictory mix of sad and hopeful. The vision of the tiny, silver, naked woman emerging from a distorted blob has been a controversial choice - yet, that controversy has drawn increased awareness to her work. We have a lot of civic statues commemorating people and events that we know nothing about. We only need to look at the reaction to the many statues of historical figures involved in slavery. How many of those had stood in town centres across the country without any attention paid to them until the collective scales fell from our eyes last summer?

It makes me think that perhaps the best way of commemorating the work of someone like Wollstonecraft is drawing awareness to the causes they stood for and the impact they had on society. For that is more long lasting than any statue. Rach Maguire is a Communications Consultant on Cohort 10 of the FWN Mentoring Scheme. She lives in Newington Green.

Follow her on Twitter @RayCharlMag

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