Naked sculpture honoring feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft sparks backlash: 'Insulting'

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor
·5 min read
A new sculpture honoring 18th-century British author and feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft, by artist Maggi Hambling, was unveiled on Nov. 10 in north London's Newington Green, close to where Wollstonecraft lived and worked. Many were upset that the bronze casting was nude. (Photo: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
A new sculpture honoring 18th-century British author and feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft, by artist Maggi Hambling, was unveiled on Nov. 10 in north London's Newington Green, close to where Wollstonecraft lived and worked. Many were upset that the bronze casting was nude. (Photo: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Mary Wollstonecraft — the British feminist writer and philosopher who advocated for the social and educational equality of women, in the 18th century, no less — has been honored with a public statue, unveiled in London on Tuesday. But a growing chorus of critics says it’s no honor at all. Why? The cast bronze sculpture depicts the icon in the nude, and in her youth, despite the bulk of her accomplishments being achieved late in her life.

Criticisms of the sculpture, created by renowned artist Maggi Hambling after a long fundraising effort, were harsh and immediate, with people calling it “catastrophically wrong” and “insulting.”

Writer Tracy King told the Guardian: “Any passing teenage boy is not going to think, oh, that’s an icon of feminist education. They are going to think – tits!”

Local protesters, in fact, took matters into their own hands Wednesday by covering up the silvered bronze figure with a black T-shirt that reads, “Woman noun adult human female.”

The Mary Wollstonecraft statue by artist Maggi Hambling was seen covered with a T-shirt by those protesting the feminist icon's nudity. (Photo: REUTERS/Paul Childs)
The Mary Wollstonecraft statue by artist Maggi Hambling was seen covered with a T-shirt by those protesting the feminist icon's nudity. (Photo: REUTERS/Paul Childs)

“The statue shows the great Wollstonecraft as tiny and represented like a porn star, it’s awful,” Janice Williams, one of the women who added the T-shirt, told the Evening Standard. “In the statue she is young — but she achieved great things when older.”

Writing in an opinion piece for the Guardian, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett noted, “It is hard to imagine a male writer or thinker being ‘honored’ by a sculpture of a tiny naked man, schlong out for all to see, ripped like a Ken doll, emerging from a mass of what we are told is ‘organic matter.’ It is a huge missed opportunity.

Mary Wollstonecraft was an English author, best known for her "Vindication of the Rights of Woman," written in 1792, which was an influential attack on conventions. (Photo: © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Mary Wollstonecraft was an English author, best known for her "Vindication of the Rights of Woman," written in 1792, which was an influential attack on conventions. (Photo: © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Outrage kept on coming on social media, including a sarcastic tweet from author Caitlin Moran and the lively thread of clothed-women sculptures it inspired:

Wollstonecraft is best known for her 1792 book A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which argues that women are not naturally inferior to men; her daughter is Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. The sculpture controversy prompted feminist author Sophie Walker to kick off a passionate discourse on Twitter, along with journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer:

Piers Morgan couldn’t help himself from weighing in:

Others just had some fun with their critiques:

The statue took 10 years and about $190,000 of funding to create, and its artist, in the wake of criticism, has forcefully defended her work.

“You can’t be naked enough can you?” Hambling told the Evening Standard, laughing off criticisms.

“The point is that she has to be naked because clothes define people. We all know that clothes are limiting and she is everywoman. As far as I know, she’s more or less the shape we’d all like to be.”

Hambling said the critics had confused Wollstonecraft with the figure in the work, adding, “She’s everywoman and clothes would have restricted her. Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes. It’s crucial that she is ‘now.’ The whole sculpture,” she said, “is called ‘for Mary Wollstonecraft’ and that’s crucially important. It’s not an idea ‘of’ Mary Wollstonecraft naked… the sculpture is for now.”

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