Statue to Mary Wollstonecraft, feminism's founding mother, should have been more like Mary Barbour's in Glasgow – Gina Davidson
Having a teenager studying both Higher history and modern studies has been a great outlet during the pandemic. For me anyway.
Now, rather than skulking off to his bedroom when I attempt to enlighten him about feminism, he has to listen because suffragettes, the role of women during WWII, equality and discrimination are all part of the curriculum.
The rent strikes in Glasgow in 1915 led by Mary Barbour were one area we discussed at some length, and it was a delight to be able to show him images of her statue which was unveiled a couple of years ago. Barbour was a giant among women – not literally but metaphorically statuesque; taking on grasping private landlords who thought they'd raise rents for poor accommodation and that, with men off fighting, the women would be an easy touch.
Her grit and determination, her sense of injustice and outrage and her leadership for many other women who faced homelessness at a time of national crisis was inspirational and deserving of commemoration.
There are too few statues of women in Scotland, indeed in the UK, and it's a running joke that in Edinburgh there are more of animals. So a new statue of a celebrated woman always makes the headlines. When that woman is Mary Wollstonecraft, considered by many to be the founding mother of feminism, then the pressure to get the statue right is immense.
However, the creation which was unveiled in London this week has caused much upset. More contemporary sculpture than statue, it is as far from the kind of representation of Barbour (or indeed Pankhurst or Fawcett) as it’s possible to get. The figurine is small... and inexplicably naked.
It takes some chutzpah for an artist briefed with creating a statue of – or even to – Wollstonecraft to carve it without clothing. As one comedienne on Twitter put it, Wollstonecraft was “more about the equalisation of men and women and less about silver tits". Reducing her to a naked “everywoman” form reduces her mind and her achievements. It's not provocative either – there are too many naked female images to be found; the world, women, didn’t need another.
But then reducing women to their bodies, and indeed body parts, has been something feminism has had to rail against for decades. To see the memory of the author of the Vindication of the Rights of Women made small, to be stripped of the very ideas and intellectualism that made her great, is incredibly sad.
Wollstonecraft wrote that strengthening the female mind by enlarging it through education would bring an end to "blind obedience”. Today, as in her day, there are many powerful men who cannot bear that idea and, as a result, women's rights are still under attack around the world.
Just look at Poland where men are asserting their rights over women's bodies once again, banning abortion. The move has provoked thousands of disobedient women to take to the streets in protest. Without a doubt, they have the spirit of Wollstonecraft with them.
A note has now been placed at the foot of the new sculpture – “Hey everywoman, put on a vest and find some strong boots, there's work to do”. Barbour, Wollstonecraft and so many women never to be commemorated in statue-form would surely agree.
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