A vindication of the role of statues today

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Having done a deep-dive into Mary Wollstonecraft’s life and work for one of my favourite modules earlier this year, I was excited to hear that she was finally getting her own statue – and then rather disappointed when the statue was revealed.

A scholar and revolutionary, it’s at first surprising that Wollstonecraft has had no statues to celebrate her work, her activism, or her life, which was tragically cut short by an infection after giving birth to her second child, Mary Godwin (perhaps you know her better as Mary Shelley). The collective forgetting of Wollstonecraft’s legacy for the first century or so after her death is usually attributed to the publication of her husband’s tell-all memoir of her, which, in the eyes of Georgian and Victorian society, tarnished her reputation irreparably. As a result, though she influenced many prominent women from Jane Austen to Millicent Fawcett, scholarship on her work only really bloomed in the second half of the twentieth century.

There is a case to be made for statues celebrating ideas and not individuals

It does seem disheartening, then, that the first and only statue of Mary Wollstonecraft, who lived her life defying conventions of what a woman should be, should fail to capture her presence or her anger. The statue doesn’t depict Wollstonecraft in any recognisable way, with the only full woman with a face on it being a silver, nude and conventionally attractive figure. This female figure is dwarfed by the six-foot swirl of vaguely female forms she rises out of. The now-contentious statue, granted, is titled A Statue for Mary Wollstonecraft – not of. But in a country where fewer than 3% of statues commemorate a named, non-royal woman, why can we not have a single statue commemorating the mother of feminism as she was?

Defenders of the statue have argued that it is supposed to represent women generally and the start of the feminist movement, rather than Wollstonecraft. The intention was honourable: to capture her legacy. And with all the debate we have rightfully had on statues this year, there is a case to be made for statues celebrating ideas and not individuals. When a statue depicts a person, larger than life, with only their name and the time they lived in, with no information about the complexity of who they were, it runs the risk of idealising figures who were as, and often more, morally grey than you and me.

Statues are sturdy, more permanent and visible than other types of art, and it’s reasonable to assume that not everyone’s legacy will stand the test of time. Think of the statue of Edward Colston, sculpted in 1895 and thrown triumphantly into Bristol harbour this summer. The durability of statues gives them perhaps unique potential to revisit history and evaluate a person’s and a society’s legacy, provoking important debate. Statues of people whose legacy is inextricable from slavery, genocide, and other such crimes are far better placed in museums or at the very least, ought to be recontextualised – this would allow us to properly understand their background. Surely a statue in a public place, with nothing to indicate its story, is more an erasure of history than one standing next to a sign or in a museum with information that shows that history for what it is. In the case of Britain, that has to include the atrocities that the British Empire brought with it. With all this in mind, perhaps it is better that statues in honour of someone depict their ideas and their consequences, rather than themselves.

The durability of statues gives them a unique potential to revisit history and provoke important debate

However, Mary Wollstonecraft was no Colston. She was radical, to be sure, and her ideas were not uncontroversial. Yet, making a statue commemorating her today is wholly different to sculpting a person’s likeness very shortly after their death, when time has yet to do its work in unravelling the legacy of their life. It is undeniable that Wollstonecraft laid the ground for the fight for women’s rights – a fight that is still ongoing. Arguably, she is one of the few figures of her time of which there definitely should be a statue. Just her, not every woman she inspired, tall enough and recognisable enough, perhaps not unlike the statue of Millicent Fawcett that stands in Parliament Square. History has erased her long enough. Are we to make the same mistake?

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