Pioneering for Equal Rights

Before the publicity I had (to my shame) never heard of Mary Wollstonecraft. Now, 223 years since her death, I, and many more of us, wonder why her trailblazing and pioneering spirit has been buried for so long. How wonderful that a statue now allows her to live on.

The statue itself has invited much criticism: a tiny figure, standing on top of a metal shape that resembles either nothing – or anything, depending on how differently we view it. On the Jeremy Vine show, I smiled as the metal shape was described as ‘a stream of frozen ice cream’. The statue standing on it has been described as a ‘naked silver Barbie.’ Critics (mainly women) have commented on the lack of male writers depicted in their nudity. One woman has attempted to cover the statue with a black tee shirt.

The sculptor, Maggi Hambling, defends her work by saying that the statue is not OF her – it is FOR her: and that……’she (Mary) is naked because clothes define people…..she is everywoman’. The statue, sculpted in silvered bronze is reported to have cost about £143,000. What good could have been done with that amount of money?

The theme of this blog is neither to criticise nor to compliment the statue itself, although I wonder why the artist wanted to depict her as naked in the way she has. Raw nudity aside, is it not a pity that a lady of such great intellect, has been depicted as so insignificant in size? I would love to know Maggie’s thoughts. What creative process inspired the whole piece: that tiny figure, standing, almost with an expression of defiance, on top of the structure? Was Venus rising from the sea, her inspiration? We must remember: this is art – not merely a statue of a person. Does the misshapen structure beneath the Barbie, indicate to the world that this forward-thinking writer was attempting to educate – and to change society? What were you thinking, Maggi, as you sculpted?

This statue will, rightly, promote debate about the role of women. Wollstonecraft has been described as the ‘mother of feminism’. She was born in east London in 1759, into a comfortable home, but with a drunken father. Deprived of the education that was lavished on her brother, Mary set out to educate herself and, at the age of 25, opened a boarding school for girls, on Newington Green in London, where the statue now stands.

Wollstonecraft’s groundbreaking book: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was published in 1792, in which she argued that boys and girls should be educated together at state expense, and that women should have representation in Parliament. It was the first book in English to make a case for the equal rights of women based on their equal power of reason.

What a book! What a point this woman was making at a time when men ruled solely: in the home, in religion (a power within itself), in education, in every community and in government. What courage to state such views. ‘I do not wish them (women) to have power over men; but over themselves,’ she wrote, urging women to shun their traditional roles of submission. Her legacy was attacked for years after her death (at the age of 38), mere days after the birth of her second daughter, Mary Shelley (renowned author of Frankenstein).

But Wollstonecraft’s words echo, ‘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.’ Her words are beautifully written. Their meaning is stark. The women of Wollstonecraft’s era were regarded as mere ornaments: child bearers – without valid thoughts or opinions. Their bodies had far greater relevance in life than their minds. And yes, what an utter waste of female brain-power. Imagine where the world might be at this moment, if Wollstonecraft’s illuminating sentiments had been allowed to make more of a difference during her lifetime.

How enlightened such a view appears now – to both sexes, and how amazing that a statue of this independent-thinking lady has not appeared before. It serves to remind us that millions of women still do not have power over themselves, even if they are educated: that, in some countries, girls are still regarded as unworthy of education, because it would be wasted, given their intended, limiting roles as mothers and homemakers. Across many Asian and Arab countries, women are still prevented from having equal rights alongside men. Arranged marriages still take place. A kind of modern slavery (am I still allowed to use the ‘s’ word?).

So, regardless of whether we like the statue or not, and whatever we feel about its nudity, we should welcome what it represents: the freedom of women to be themselves and to make the most of their minds. Education is a basic right (for every girl and boy) and that is what we should all be striving for.

I am author of thirteen books for staff in schools (Routledge): plus five books written to encourage parents to play a more influential role in education. Knowledge is strength – and strength is power! So knowing WHAT and HOW children learn year by year (from my books) is the key to unlocking every child’s potential. If your child has SEND, Book 1: Support Your Child with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities: a guide for parents, offers all you need to know about the SEND system. Books 2 to 5: Support Your Child At The Early Years Foundation Stage, At Key Stage One, At Key Stage Two and At Key Stage Three, also offer a comprehensive outline of WHAT should be taught, WHEN and HOW. They are available from Lulu or Amazon, written by Sylvia Edwards.

So let’s look deeply inside this sculpture, to touch the beating heart of the message it represents: a symbol of the power of education to promote equal rights. It is up to all of us – schools and parents working together for our young people. How else can we mend our damaged world?

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