The new statue commemorating Mary Wollstonecraft will disappoint socialists and feminists as it fails to represent what she stood for, argues Lindsey German
After a decade of campaigning and fundraising, a statue commemorating Mary Wollstonecraft has been erected in Newington Green where she lived and worked. Newington Green was a centre of Dissenting from the established Anglican church - such religious settlements had to be located 5 miles from the City of London under the Five Mile Act so the area attracted many with radical and liberal views. It is still the site of a beautiful and very simply designed Unitarian chapel.
The statue is striking but has sparked controversy and there have been constant groups around it since it was unveiled on Tuesday. I went to visit it on my lockdown walk and while I was there it never had less than 20 people around it, taking photos and giving their opinions on its merits or otherwise. There were already several homemade feminist placards placed around the plinth expressing opposition to it.
I tend to agree. For me, the statue is poor and doesn’t represent what Wollstonecraft stood for. The nude ‘everywoman’ figure at the top is a very sexualised representation, which I find odd - not because I object to nude images of women but it has absolutely nothing to do with Wollstonecraft, and insofar as it is meant to represent feminism, it stylises an image which many feminists would reject. However, the nude figure is only a tiny part of the whole. The major problem is that the statue doesn’t summon thoughts or images of Wollstonecraft, nor of much else.
It strikes me as a crude attempt to sum her ideas up without really understanding those ideas. There is no sense of her role as Enlightenment thinker, dissenter, or of the connections of Newington Green to these ideas. It is a kind of post-modern identity politics view of feminism.
It also betrays an ignorance or disregard for Wollstonecraft's ideas as a whole. Her feminism and famous writing A Vindication of the Rights of Women was an important part of this, but she was part of a much wider radical movement which supported a range of ideas challenging the old order, was a supporter of the French revolution and lived in France during part of it, and challenged 18th-century stereotypes about women.
What a failure the statue is - it just doesn’t represent its subject. I have reservations about statues anyway but given so much time and effort was put into fundraising for this one, the result will disappoint many socialists and feminists. The statue didn't have to be figurative, although for a very good such artwork of Wollstonecraft see Red Saunders' Hidden Project. But it does have to be empathetic. And intelligent. This isn’t.
For those going to see the statue and have their own view, please also look at the beautiful Unitarian chapel opposite which better channels her ideas, or visit Abney Park cemetery nearby where one of her friends is buried.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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