The Naked Feminist

What lies behind the arguments over a Mary Wollstonecraft statue?

Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

On his wedding night, the Victorian art critic John Ruskin recoiled from his new bride, the attractive 20-year-old Effie Gray, and found himself unable to consummate the marriage. As Effie later wrote to her father, Ruskin “had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was.” After six unhappy years, their marriage was annulled because of Ruskin’s “incurable impotency.”

But what, exactly, was the problem? The speculation has always been that what so disgusted Ruskin was that—after a lifetime studying classical statues—he’d had no idea that women had pubic hair.

That delusion will not be shared by anyone who has seen a new commemorative statue for Mary Wollstonecraft in North London. The tiny female silver figure at its apex is lavishly endowed with the stuff. The 21st century might be the era of the “landing strip,” but in a corner of this park, it is forever 1975. (That is not even the most baffling decision made by the artist, Maggi Hambling, an honor that goes to the statue’s mismatch of textures—the fungal base, the smooth shaft, the sharp angles of the human figure at the tip—and proportions. This is not, to say the least, how I would choose to be remembered.)

Wollstonecraft was a radical, politically and personally, and she is now seen as the “mother of feminism” thanks to her rebuttals of 18th-century philosophers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that women were weak and fundamentally unserious. She pushed for better education for girls to counteract society’s tendency to value their looks over their brains. “Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison,” she wrote in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

In 1790, in A Vindication of the Rights of Men, she attacked the aristocracy, associating herself with the ideas behind the French Revolution, an event that terrified the English establishment. Throughout her adult life, she was a controversial figure, but in the year following her death at the age of 38—only 11 days after giving birth to the future Mary Shelley—she became infamous. In his memoirs, her partner, William Godwin, revealed her love affairs, her earlier illegitimate daughter, and her suicide attempts. The poet Robert Southey condemned Godwin, saying he had shown a “want of all feeling in stripping his dead wife naked.”

Now Wollstonecraft has been stripped again. Since the statue’s unveiling last week, the biggest question has been: Why honor the “mother of feminism” with a statue of a naked woman? And not just a naked woman, but one emerging from six feet of swirling silver, like a Barbie glued to a melted popsicle, with what its sculptor described as an aspirational body? “It’s actually very disrespectful,” 38-year-old Ruth McKee, who had come to see the statue for herself, told me. “Men get to be their actual size, clothed, and look like themselves.” Those defending the artwork—including the poor souls who spent a decade fundraising for its creation—respond by insisting that it is not of Wollstonecraft, but for her. It has, they say, “started a conversation.”

Aaron Chown (PA Images / Getty)

On this latter point, they are correct. When I visited the statue on a damp Saturday, a festival atmosphere surrounded it. A bouquet of flowers had been placed on its plinth, with another in the suffragette colors of purple, white, and green at its base. Homemade cardboard signs lay scattered around it, covered in quotations from her work. The crowd came on bicycles, trailing large dogs, drinking cider and coffee from plastic cups. Everyone stood around the statue, earnestly discussing patriarchy, objectification, and the male gaze, plus the merits of figurative versus representational art. It was quite disconcerting. What is this, I thought—France?

But no, this is Britain. In the past few years, this country, like the United States, has embarked on a round of soul-searching about its public monuments. Statues confront us with unavoidable questions about what, and whom, we value. They set in stone—or rather, bronze—the stories we like to tell about ourselves. Take the choice of Wollstonecraft. Many modern feminists idolize her for the same reasons she was once derided: She is the prototypical “hot mess”—a brilliant woman with a chaotic personal life—not a Goody Two-shoes like the 19th-century suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who is commemorated in Parliament Square. The latter delivered endless petitions, held hundreds of public meetings, and never lost faith that votes for women could be delivered through nonviolent means. She also acted as a secretary for her husband, who had been blinded in a shooting accident. Where Fawcett seems stoutly Victorian, Wollstonecraft’s restless struggle against social conventions, at the cost of her mental health, is closer to the modern ideal.

Yet feminism has room for them both. In fact, Fawcett helped restore her predecessor’s reputation by contributing an introduction to a new edition of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1891. While praising Wollstonecraft’s possession of a “double-edged knife of a sound heart and clear head,” Fawcett made a moderate case for the revolutionary writer, arguing that she “had a keen appreciation of the sanctity of women’s domestic duties.” Nineteenth-century readers wanted their history to be a mirror too.

The statue has also provided an outlet for arguments about the nature and status of women—something Wollstonecraft might have appreciated. There is clearly an imbalance to be redressed, because fewer than 3 percent of British statues depict a named, nonroyal woman. Women walk through public spaces that reinforce a view of history tilted toward war and politics, two arenas in which their contributions have been discounted. But that very marginalization means that every scrap of new space for women is contested. One evening last week, the Wollstonecraft statue was augmented, or defaced, depending on your point of view, by the addition of black masking tape and, later, a T-shirt that read Woman (noun): adult human female. Describing the statue as an “everywoman,” as Hambling did, meanwhile runs headlong into conversations about intersectionality and which women benefit most from feminism. Like glossy magazines, the statue celebrates the right of slim, conventionally attractive women to remove their clothes (still, at least there’s no suggestion that it is “empowering”).

The biggest question—one that applies much more widely than to a single statue of a single feminist—is this: How do we live alongside one another, even when we disagree? Think of that statue as a stand-in for someone who disagrees with you on feminism, on Brexit, on Donald Trump, on whether white privilege is a useful phrase, or whether religion has a place in public life. The arguments over one small square in North London are the same as those over what opinions are compatible with appearances on the BBC, our impartial state broadcaster. They are the same as the fight over what our history curriculum teaches children, or whether the National Trust, the charity that maintains and allows visitors to peer into historic properties, should reassess its links with colonialism, or whether 1619 or 1776 marked America’s “true founding.” In these culture-war skirmishes, each instance might seem trivial—as the Wollstonecraft campaigners have said, maybe detractors should fund more statues of women, so there’s less pressure on this one—but the principle is about as big as you can get. Who’s in control here? Who sets the rules? When it comes to feminism, the debate is particularly fraught, as women are funneled into arguing with one another over a small slice of what has traditionally belonged to men—in this case, the public square.

By the time I left the park, it was getting dark. The winter gloom reminded me of an academic paper that showed that only 15 percent of “public open spaces” such as parks have adequate lights along their paths, deterring girls and young women from using them for exercise. Mary Wollstonecraft wanted women to take up as much space as men. Two hundred years later, they still don’t—not in real life, and not as silver figurines. Until they do, every new statue of a woman risks becoming as contested as Mary on The Green.