Statues are an index of what we consider important enough to fix in brass or stone, so it’s hardly surprising that women rarely make the cut. When Caroline Criado Perez broke down the numbers on the UK’s 925 public statues, back in 2016, she found that men outnumber women as subjects by about 2.5 to one, and nearly half the female figures are allegorical. An awful lot of them are naked.
Restrict the count to historical women, exclude the royal tributes (most of them to Queen Victoria), and you end up with a grand total of 25: 25 women declared worthy of the figurative treatment on the basis of their own works. Gosh.
Since then, those numbers have inched up slightly. First, there was the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square — for which Criado Perez campaigned. And today, the unveiling of what is supposedly a tribute to the proto-feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. I say “supposedly” because, what has actually emerged is one of the most derided pieces of public art in some time.
Maggi Hambling’s work, explains The Guardian, “shows a silvery naked everywoman figure emerging free and defiantly from a swirling mingle of female forms”. I have so many questions, the first of which is: how can a “mingle of female forms” look so, well, phallic? The absurdly tiny nude (who is not a representation of Mary Wollstonecraft, so no need to wonder whether these perky tits are true to the writer’s historical rack) sits on top of a spume-like column which is undeniably a bit jizz-ish.
In what way is this a meaningful tribute to Wollstonecraft’s work? Why does “a mingle of female forms” become an “everywoman”, since they both just seem to be ways of showing femaleness as an undifferentiated mass? Couldn’t it have looked a bit less silly? The art is displeasing; the politics are worse. Wollstonecraft’s work inveighed against the “arbitrary power of beauty” and her culture’s insistent deformation of women into “artificial, weak characters”: what’s more artificial than a gym-bodied piece of symbolism balanced on a silver plume?
I would not argue against this statue’s existence; instead, I hope for a partner piece to redeem it. Imagine: a pudenda-esque form supporting a dinky allegorical man with perfect silver cock and balls, to honour Wollstonecraft’s fellow philosopher and husband William Godwin. It would be an absurd and revolting way to commemorate his intellectual labours, but at least you could call it equality.