Rights Of Girls: on the controversial Mary Wollstonecraft statue
“A new statute of Mary Wollstonecraft – ‘mother of feminism’ and author of A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman – has been covered up with a T-shirt by those protesting against her nudity. Critics said it felt ‘disrespectful’ to her many academic achievements. Sculptor Maggi Hambling said: ‘We all know that clothes are limiting and she is everywoman.’ Writer Tracy King tweeted: ‘Statues of named men get to be clothed because the focus is on their work and achievements. Meanwhile women walking or jogging through parks experience high rates of sexual harassment because our bodies are considered public property’”
TALKING POINTS TO ASK YOUR CHILD
Why do you think we have statues of people?
Do you see an equal number of female and male statues in your surroundings?
If a statue was created for you or of you, what would you like it to look like?
TALKING POINT Is the ad good? Do many kids feel they don’t fit in? Read the article
We approached Newington Green on a cold, dark November evening. Dusk had fallen and the park was in shadow. Out of the gloom a silvery, twisting statue rose like a phantom, a gleaming flame. A small crowd stood peering up at the tiny naked figure riding the crest of it. Engraved on the plinth: “For Mary Wollstonecraft”. An older gentleman in a flat cap, tweed overcoat and a cane scoffed, “D’ya think she’d be thankful for that after all her work?” The statue was a local lockdown attraction and the surrounding ground was a quagmire from people wanting to get a glimpse of the controversy. I inched forward to read the protest notes left in the mud: “Mother of Feminism? Where are her clothes?”
Newington Green park in north London is a stone’s throw from the boarding school for girls Wollstonecraft set up aged 25. Having received a scanty education herself as a child in a domestically abusive home, she understood the power and importance of education in raising women out of the oppression they faced. The question I asked myself after seeing the statue was: “What would a classroom of girls say about it today after learning about Wollstonecraft’s life and work?” What would they have created if they were asked to design a statue “For Mary, For Everywoman”?
Sex, sexual images and sexual objectification are unfortunately omnipresent in a woman’s life from girlhood. Too often without awareness or appreciation of her own body, she learns to compare it to the bodies of other women. She learns to be wary of what a body can be used for, how it can be violated, how it can betray her. With Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat and, in darker parts of the internet, OnlyFans (where young girls – often underage – sell images of themselves) women are reduced to the sum of their body parts, their selfies, their filtered faces. A girl who wants to be prized for her mind, even today, faces a Sisyphean challenge. Billie Eilish is an example of an 18-year-old girl struggling with this image-based society and the double standards it comes with. The all-female band Dream Wife penned a rock anthem that cuts to the heart of bodily autonomy: “I am not my body / I’m somebody”. Girls are fighting to be more than what they look like as the world undergoes a cultural shift towards the image – a shift that falls heavily upon the female form.
Wollstonecraft was a woman who trod her own muddy path – a woman who refused to be sidelined, emerged from the shadows of poverty and a troubled childhood, and overcame adversity. Ultimately her body couldn’t withstand the birth of her second child and she died 11 days later. She spent her life promoting education for women, prioritising the mind, and it was her body, her womanhood, that caused her untimely death.
The statue dedicated to Wollstonecraft is a shimmering, petite figure with perky breasts and pubic hair. The semantics of the inscription “For Mary” are important in that the figure is supposed to represent the birth of feminism, not physically represent the mother of feminism. Given the details of the life and death of Mary Wollstonecraft, could a Sixth Form class of Newington Green girls have created a different vision, a less naked vision? Could we have granted those girls an education and asked them to produce something they felt was worthy?
I hope the statue brings enlightenment around the life and contribution of Wollstonecraft to feminism, and I hope it raises questions about a woman’s place in the world and how women are entitled to take up that space. We can continue to focus on education, praising girls for their minds and not just for how pretty they are. We can have open discourse around sex education to help girls break free of the trappings and stereotypes that are forced on them from a young age. We can help them to ride the crest of a new wave – a place of discovery, where they can find answers to their own questions, take up space and show us what “Everywoman” means to them.
Kate Norris is a writer and feminist activist. She grew up in conservative Ireland in the 90s when the only sex education available was abstinence until marriage. In 2018 she helped campaign for women’s rights in the monumental Repeal The 8th movement. She strongly believes in having an open dialogue with children about sex education from a young age