We’ve been waiting months for the delayed unveiling of Maggi Hambling’s sculpture honoring Mary Wollstonecraft, “foremother of feminism.”

A statue for Mary Wollstonecraft unveiled on November 10, 2020, in Newington Green, London.

Here’s our post about this sculpture from February 2020, Visibility Matters: A Statue for Mary Wollstonecraft, and one about Mary Wollstonecraft posted earlier, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Wild Wish.

This sculpture was finally unveiled in London on November 10, 2020, and, as anticipated, ignited fiery debate.

Bee Rowlatt, chair of Mary on the Green, an organization involved in fundraising for over a decade, had this to say following the 2018 selection of Hambling’s work:

“This mould-breaking work of art will provoke debate, which is what public art should do, and which is what Wollstonecraft did her whole life!”(Hackney Citizen).

Hambling’s design was selected after a “unanimous” decision by the judges, who described it as “a radical proposal embodying radical ideas”

The radical artist herself stated,

“I hope this piece will act as a metaphor for the challenges women continue to face as we confront the world.

“The sculpture is designed to encourage a visual conversation with the obstacles Wollstonecraft overcame, the ideals she strived for, and what she made happen,” Hambling said. “In this sculpture female forms commingle, rising inseparably into one another, transmuting and culminating in the figure of a woman standing free, her own person, ready to confront the world. The figure embodies all women”(Stylist).

A close-up of “every woman” emerging at the top of Hambling’s sculpture.

Some of the controversy following the unveiling seems due to a misunderstanding of Hambling’s intent, that this is a work of art FOR Mary Wollstonecraft, not one OF her. Some controversy swirls around how the naked female body is received in a public space, if it even belongs there.

There is anger, confusion, and disgust. And there is awe, recognition, and appreciation.

I wonder if we can stop and consider all of these reactions and use this work of art and this moment to propel ourselves in a more meaningful direction, together. It seems to me that with this sculpture TO Mary Wollstonecraft, there is no right or wrong, good or bad. Rather, there is an awesome opportunity. An opportunity to discuss and discover the ways feminists can express and celebrate the challenges and progress of our movement.

As Eleanor Nairne states in her Critic’s Notebook New York Times piece A Naked Statue for a Feminist Hero?:

“This is public art intended to address its audience in real life, in the present tense. As Virginia Woolf once said of Wollstonecraft, ‘We hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.’”

Statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929) in Parliament Square, London, by Gillian Wearing.

This sculpture is being compared to the one of suffragist Millicent Fawcett by Gillian Wearing, erected in 2018 in Parliament Square, and another, of Virginia Woolf by sculptor Laury Dizengremel, “depicting Woolf in a contemplative, relaxed moment – and fully clothed”(Flood).

This new one of Woolf is nearing completion. In these sculptures, the women are a likeness and clothed and that’s what’s expected, but why not allow for both types of representation in public, the realistic and the abstract, the conventional and the unconventional?

An article in The Guardian by Alison Flood informs that donations toward the new Virginia Woolf statue came flooding in after Hambling’s sculpture was revealed, a clear indication of some people’s preference. But I sincerely ask, do all statues of women have to be the same, to look alike? Why so restrictive? I can’t help but be reminded of how women are restricted in society.

I, for one, want to be freed.

Soon to be installed sculpture of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), riverside in Richmond, outside of London.

I appreciate that the artist is not delegating Wollstonecraft to a particular era by creating a clothed image of her. As Hambling says, “The point is that she has to be naked because clothes define people. We all know that clothes are limiting and she is everywoman”(Independent).

Novelist Jojo Moyes commented: “I think it would have been nice to commemorate Mary Wollstonecraft with her clothes on”(Harrison). Nice? I am not so sure nice is what Hambling, or Wollstonecraft, are after.

When I read the question posed by the title of Nairne’s New York Times editorial, A Naked Statue for a Feminist Hero?, my immediate thought was, why not? Why shouldn’t a feminist hero represent the reclamation of the female body?

This sculpture is not just any woman, it represents Every Woman. This woman is unrestricted, strong, an empowering blend of feminine and masculine, with a serious, determined look on her face. To me, she is righteous in the best sense of the word and represents the resilience of women, born from the labor of all who have fought tirelessly for women’s rights, rising up for now and the future.

I am captivated and elevated by the spirit and movement of the sculpture.

British artist (painter and sculptor) Maggi Hambling (b. 1945).

Caroline Criado-Perez, British feminist author, journalist, and activist, says she doesn’t think Wollstonecraft would be happy with it. With all due respect, no matter how much scholarly work one has done on Wollstonecraft or feminism, I’m just not convinced anyone can claim to know what the honoree of this sculpture would think or how she would feel. Maybe she wouldn’t like it, maybe she would, but isn’t this missing the point? Wollstonecraft left us a legacy that we have been building upon and as Hambling relays, it’s relevant now.

Alexander Adams reports in The Critic:

“Feminists have a choice: enforce collectivist loyalty through fierce policing or allow women the opportunity to be apolitical and even dissent.

Hambling is like Wollstonecraft – a strong-minded, independent woman who has taken considerable public criticism over many years. Whether or not Hambling’s statue is good, feminists should perhaps reflect on her character and achievements and recognise the price she has paid to be exactly what they claim to esteem: a bloody-minded woman with serious ideas.”

Thank you, Mary Wollstonecraft, and thank you, Maggi Hambling, two courageous Nasty Women challenging us to keep moving forward, no matter how controversial the path.

© Maria Dintino 2020

Works Cited

Adams, Alexander. “Maggi Hambling’s Wollstonecraft is earnestly nonconformist.” The Critic, 11 November 2020. https://thecritic.co.uk/maggi-hamblings-wollstonecraft-is-earnestly-nonconformist/

Crockett, Moya. “London is getting a Mary Wollstonecraft statue, because visibility matters.” Stylist, 2018.

Flood, Alison. “Virginia Woolf statue fundraiser flooded with donations after Wollstonecraft controversy.” The Guardian, 13 November 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/13/virginia-woolf-statue-fundraiser-flooded-with-donations-after-wollstonecraft-controversy#:~:text=The%20Woolf%20monument%20is%20intended,relaxed%20moment%20%E2%80%93%20and%20fully%20clothed

Hackney Citizen. “Campaigners announce winning design for Mary Wollstonecraft Statue.” 15 May 2018. https://www.hackneycitizen.co.uk/2018/05/15/campaigners-announce-winning-design-mary-wollstonecraft-statue/

Harrison, Elle. “Mary Wollstonecraft: Artist behind controversial statue says critics ‘missed the point.’” Independent, 11 November 20202. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/mary-wollstonecraft-maggi-hambling-statue-b1720953.html

Nairne, Eleanor. “A Naked Statue for a Feminist?” New York Times, 12 November 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/12/arts/design/mary-wollstonecraft-statue-london.html

O’Connor, Roisin. “Maggi Hambling: The artist behind the controversial Mary Wollstonecraft sculpture.” Independent, 11 November 2020. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/mary-wollstonecraft-statue-maggi-hambling-controversy-b1720963.html

Thompson, Jessie. “Maggi Hambling to create statue celebrating feminist thinker Mary Wollstonecraft.” Evening Standard, 15 May 2018.  https://www.standard.co.uk/culture/maggi-hambling-chosen-to-create-statue-celebrating-feminist-thinker-mary-wollstonecraft-a3839466.html