Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th-century English writer and philosopher often dubbed the “mother of feminism,” received a new tribute on Tuesday: a statue in a London park meant to honor her life and work.
But almost immediately after its unveiling, the artwork — which cost £143,300 (about $190,000) and was a decade in the making — had attracted public ridicule and criticisms of sexism.
The sculpture comprises a small figurine of a naked woman, who many said doesn’t resemble Wollstonecraft, perched on top of a larger, twisting mass of silver. It all sits on a black base engraved with a famous Wollstonecraft quote: “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.”
But many critics didn’t see it that way — nor did they appreciate the use of female nudity in a statue designed to celebrate Wollstonecraft’s efforts to improve women’s rights.
The statue is topped by the small figure of a naked woman. Credit: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Writer Tracy King also decried the statue as “a shocking waste of an opportunity that can’t be undone.”
1/15 – Anna Komnene
The world’s first female historian was Anna Komnene. In the 11th century, she wrote an extensive account called “The Alexiad” (the source for the above quote) of both Byzantine daily life and the political struggles during the reign of her father, Emperor Alexius I. Credit: Anastasia Beltyukova/CNN
She added that “there is no reason to depict Mary naked,” and that the statue’s petite, slender body undermines the campaign’s aim of representing the “everywoman.”
Some critics acknowledged that, despite their misgivings about the statue’s appearance, the original intent had been an important one. Wollstonecraft is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers, though the term “feminism” had yet to be coined in her lifetime. In her writings and conversations, she argued that women are not naturally inferior to men, but are limited by societal constraints and lack of access to education.
An engraving of Mary Wollstonecraft. Credit: Engraving by Opie (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
“Over 90% of London’s monuments celebrate men,” reads the campaign website. “This is set against a population of 51% women.”
Of these, almost half were based on fictional figures, 14 were of the Virgin Mary and 46 were of royalty — meaning there were only 25 statues of historical, non-royal women in the UK.
Recent years have seen growing calls to change this. Since 2018, statues of female suffragettes, writers and activists have been erected in several British cities, including London and Manchester.
Mary on the Green picked Hambling to create the Wollstonecraft statue in 2018, and finally hit its goal of £143,300 in 2019 after years of fundraising
She added that the sculpture was silver because she felt it was “much more (of a) female color than bronze,” and that it could catch the sunlight and “float in space.”
The video showed the statue being installed — from digging a hole for the base and using cranes to lift the statue into place.
“Seeing Maggi Hambling’s artwork go up has caused a sort of volcano of emotions in me,” said Bee Rowlatt, chair of Mary on the Green, in the video. “I’ve always felt it was a huge injustice that people didn’t know who Mary Wollstonecraft was. We’ve gone some way to righting that injustice.”
CNN has reached out to Hambling for comment.