Mary Wollstonecraft Deserves Better

Detail of portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, c. 1790-1791 (Public domain/via Wikimedia)
Feminist art is almost always terrible.

To get a glimpse of the unseriousness of much of modern feminism, take a look at the latest monument erected in honor of “feminist icon” Mary Wollstonecraft on Newington Green in North London. Tiny and naked, with her full pubic bush on display, the bland figurine stands on top of an otherwise indistinguishable blob of silver.

The point, according to Maggi Hambling, the monument’s creator, was for it to represent the “Everywoman.” But the real effect, say the piece’s many critics, is the insulting implication that the fate, even of one of the brightest and most consequential women ever to have lived, is to be reduced to an insignificant sex object. Though the artist’s point was to complain about the objectification of women, rather like the women who stripped naked during the Women’s March to protest the “male gaze,” this strategy is glaringly self-defeating.

The Mary Wollstonecraft statue Mother of feminism by artist Maggi Hambling in Newington Green, London, England, November 11, 2020. (Paul Childs/Reuters)

The real Mary Wollstonecraft, whose surviving portraits look nothing like the Newington Green monument, was a moral and political philosopher, born in London in 1759. Sadly, Wollstonecraft was not blessed with good men in her life. Her father was a violent drunk and, later, Gilbert Imlay, her lover, abandoned her and her first child in France, right in the thick of the French Revolution. Her formal education was limited, yet, impressively, she still managed to pen some serious (if revolutionary) works. These included A Vindication of the Rights of Man, a blistering rebuttal to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and defense of her friend Richard Price, then later, arguably her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1791).

Wollstonecraft believed that women ought to be educated equally to men, and that men and women should both play an active role in childrearing. She was by no means a progressive on modern feminist dogmas, such as abortion, but she did recognize that mothers generally abandon and destroy their infants once they are out of more appealing options. Her final, unfinished novel, Maria: or, The Wrongs of Women, is about an impoverished woman, raped and impregnated by her master, who has an abortion. And in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft wrote, “Women becoming, consequently weaker, in mind and body than they ought to be have not sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother; and . . . either destroy the embryo in the womb or cast it off when born. Nature in everything demands respect, and those who violate her laws seldom violate them with impunity.” Wollstonecraft was later to die in tragic irony, at the unsterilized hands of the male surgeon who delivered her second daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, a genius who manifested her mother’s bioethical themes in the novel of the era, Frankenstein.

It’s been a bad year for statues, so in one sense, it’s nice to see that we haven’t abandoned them entirely. Mary Wollstonecraft was flawed and complex in the way that all of history’s most looming tend to be. She had some good ideas and a lot of bad ones, she made some constructive choices and a lot of destructive ones, but she was ultimately a gifted woman of great consequence. All this to say that her legacy remains worthy of serious consideration, and that a monument honoring her life and legacy would be a worthy thing. The trouble is that modern feminism lacks both the intellectual coherence and the aesthetic principles to do her justice. Once again, the politicization of art spells its death. It’s high time we do away with “feminist” commissions entirely and simply employ artists with actual talent of either sex. I suspect Mary Wollstonecraft would agree.