Mary Wollstonecraft: who was the women’s rights advocate - and why has Maggi Hambling’s new statue of her been criticised?

The statue’s creator says it has been misunderstood

The statue dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft hasn't been well received by many (Getty Images)
The statue dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft hasn't been well received by many (Getty Images)

A statue dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft has received a divisive reception.

Many have questioned why the sculpture, cast in silvered bronze, depicted the “foremother of feminism” in the nude.

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But organisers and the sculptor Maggi Hambling have said the work A Sculpture For Mary Wollstonecraft “personifies the spirit, rather than depicts the individual”.

Critics include columnist and feminist Caitlin Moran who wrote on Twitter: “This is the new statue of Mary Wollstonecraft.

“It’s not making me angry in any way because I just KNOW the streets will soon be full of statues depicting John Locke’s shiny testicles, Nelson Mandela’s proud penis, and Descartes adorable arse.”

Criticism and defence of the statue

The sculpture has been unveiled in north London’s Newington Green, close to where Wollstonecraft lived and worked.

But many have criticised the statue, questioning why Wollstonecraft was depicted naked.

Writer Malorie Blackman said: “Genuine question: Why present Mary Wollstonecraft as naked? I’ve seen many statues of male writers, rights activists and philosophers and I can’t remember any of them being bare-assed.”

Writer Tracy King shared her disappointment on Twitter and said: “This is exactly what you get if you let lazy art values come before the politics the statue is meant to represent. It’s a shocking waste of an opportunity that can’t be undone.”

Feminist writer Caroline Criado-Perez agreed, describing the statue as a “colossal waste”.

She added: “I just have one more thing to say because i think it’s important: this feels disrespectful to Wollstonecraft herself and isn’t that the most important part?”

Channel 4 journalist Georgina Lee was also unimpressed with the statue, tweeting: “Because nothing says ‘honouring the mother of feminism’ like a sexy naked lady.”

Hambling, one of Britain’s best known artists, said critics had misunderstood.

“My sculpture, I hope, celebrates the spirit of Mary Wollstonecraft. It certainly isn’t a historical likeness,” she told the PA news agency.

She said those who have criticised it “are not reading the word, the important word, which is on the plinth quite clearly: ‘for’ Mary Wollstonecraft. It’s not ‘of’ Mary Wollstonecraft.”

Hambling added: “Clothes define people, As she’s Everywoman, I’m not defining her in any particular clothes.

“It’s not a conventional heroic or heroinic likeness of Mary Wollstonecraft. It’s a sculpture about now, in her spirit.”

Who was Mary Wollstonecraft?

Often described as the “mother of feminism”, Mary Wollstonecraft was both a philosopher and early advocate of women’s rights.

Before her death at the age of 38, she wrote a series of texts that would lay the foundation for modern feminist thought.

She remains best known for 1792’s A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman, in which she argued women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education.

A memorial to Wollstonecraft by artist Maggi Hambling has gone on display in Newington Green, Islington, provoking an online backlash due to its inclusion of a naked female figure.

Wollstonecraft was born in Spitalfields, London, in 1759, to a family of reasonable wealth. But her father, a drunk who was sometimes violent, squandered the family money.

She did not receive a substantial education but in her mid-20s opened a girls’ school in Newington Green, close to where the new statue is displayed.

Shortly before Louis XVI was guillotined during the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft left for Paris and took an American lover.

Her experiences in the French capital would influence her later work.

At 33 she wrote A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman, striking out against the popular theorists of the time who believed women should not have an education.

She died aged 38 shortly after the birth of her daughter, the author Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein.