the legacy of mary wollstonecraft is trans inclusive feminism
the silver surfer walks into a bar and the bartender says 'hey ain't u that feminist philosopher?'
its been made by Maggie Hambling and placed in Newington Green in Islington, London, and is a naked woman riding a wave which cost £143,000 to make. or at least thats what it looks like to most. and its been met with a lot of feelings. i mean, to start with it looks bugger all like her and the figure is TINY and more importantly to point out she is NAKED.
while as a nation we need to learn to be a lot less prudish about nudity, there are overall just too many naked statues of women in the category of public sculpture - in fact the main statues u will see of a woman fully clothed are of Queen Victoria. that tells us a lot about public sculpture that royalty is the main one that will be clothed. now thats mostly down to what we know is the Male Gaze, but this has been made by a woman. a cis woman.
now cis women can and should make work about experiences and histories of cis women and thats fine and that is part of feminism. saying that over and over to myself hasn’t stopped the alarm in the back of my head going off tho.
the figure is a cis woman riding a wave and the intention is to go beyond the victorian tradition of putting specific people on plinths. so what we have is the depiction of a wave of feminism. a naked woman being lifted up by a wave of feminism. the whole thing gives me major 2nd wave feminist vibes.
is that a bad thing tho?
no but it does need to be unpacked.
as a trans woman, i find 2nd wave feminism and transphobia have been blurred into one leaving me scared shitless at the thought of 2nd wave feminism and that sucks cuz 2nd wave feminism was actually pretty inclusive. and so was Mary Wollenstonecraft.
Mary Wollstonecraft is basically the og british feminist philosopher (well probs not og as feminism in some form existed well before she did but she’s a pretty damn important one) who wrote about liberation of women and was quite an out there character for her time herself. in fact she was so out there very much of the opinion that trans women were a big part of women’s liberation, citing Chevalier d’Eon as a shining beacon of ‘female fortitude’ and even mentioned her in her book A Vindication of The Rights of Woman (1792) saying "I shall not lay any great stress upon the example of a few women (Sappho, Eloisa, Mrs. Macaulay, the Empress of Russia, Madame d'Eon, etc. These, and many more, may be reckoned exceptions; and, are not all heroes, as well as heroines, exceptions to general rules? I wish to see women neither heroines nor brutes; but reasonable creatures.) who, from having received a masculine education, have acquired courage and resolution;"
obvs the language around gender and transness wasn’t as advanced as it is now so we don’t get her acknowledging transness, but then again why the hell would she!
Wollstonecraft is talking about the liberation of women and d’Eon is a woman and therefore part of that.
Chevalier d’Eon was what we would now consider an intersex trans woman. she was a soilder and a spy, things which i remember ppl using to discredit her life as a woman but trans women have been soilders and spies for a long time in history and hell look at how many trans women there are in the armed forces. ofc we have to look at the situation with a ‘period eye’ and thru the lens of the time to keep historians happy so lets just call her what she is - a woman - cuz thats exactly what Mary Wollstonecraft calls her and who are we to argue with the mother of feminism.
what does this have to do with anything?
well the day after the statue went up the figure was covered up by an ‘adult human female’ tshirt which is the dogwhistle merch of the terfs. naturally trans twitter was on this and Wollstonecraft's basically supporting trans women was only a thing i found out about as part of this storm (as much as i hate twitter it is a great way to learn this kinda shit).
while i’m all for interventions and actions to cover up this unnecessarily naked statue (like the gaffa tape and cape it was given prior to the tshirt), especially when the other option was clothed and included books and had a bench as part of it - see below - the covering it up with a tshirt that has dogwhistle terf slogans on shook me.
These tshirts have appeared on statues of nude women in leeds before and i actually am on their side in this particular thing of not needing more naked women statues, but why the slogan? What does a trans exclusive feminism have to do with this?
well the nudity actually.
while they are trying to cover it up they have used a slogan that is designed to subtly say that women have fannies and xx chromosomes and whatever else they learned in science back in school. If u go do research into transphobes doing these kinds of actions and rallies then u will see these tshirts pop up everywhere and they may seem benign but they are indeed a dogwhistle.
over the past few years they’ve become that symbol of a hateful bigoted campaign that ultimately isn’t even about trans ppl but about lashing out. at the most recent one to happen in leeds one of the attendees (clearly not clocking me under my mask thank u pandemic for making me unclockable) turned to me and said they were worried BLM would come out to protest them. hilarious given i spent the past 4 years doing a lot of the work opposing these ppl whenever they pop up in this city and BLM are the ones who they’re worried about. Almost like its just about being bigots and fascists
Anyway to bring it back to the statue - this kind of art attracts this kind of person and this kind of feminism. A generic statue of a naked cis woman that is a reference to a feminist of the past being plonked in public at a time when our country has never been more transphobic is of course going to draw out this crowd. They can join in the chorus of decrying the nudity of the statue and slowly take over the narrative, how they have done with the narrative of 2nd wave feminism, even tho legacies of Sandy Stone and Beth Elliot being accepted in women only and lesbian spaces - until hateful people came along - shows us that it was indeed more inclusive than my nervous system will let me believe (i definitely have a trauma response to anything that feels 2nd wave feminist and have to take a damn minute and step back and talk myself out of going to that traumatised paranoid place cuz most ppl aren’t malicious just…aren’t thinking in full…)
Even a zine project in response to the statue has had to state it is trans inclusive, which sucks they have to, but they are clearly aware of the context in which the statue sits and stating this plants a foot firmly grounded making sure bigots can’t claim her legacy in their names.
And now for this bit u knew were coming and we have to talk about - yes, the nudity is a problem because it relies on assumptions of bodies. And no trans ppl r not coming for ur nudes so stop clutching ur pearls and put the Botticelli down i’m not gonna burn it and lets talk about this.
The statue is designed as an ‘everyday woman’ riding wave of feminism and this means that it is based on a specific kind of woman despite its attempts at being generic. Yes its a cis woman but its also thin and white and visibly able-bodied (altho hidden illnesses exist so thats more of a grey area and we know that Wollstonecraft herself was pretty damn ill towards the end of her life). Its the sculptural equivalent of the pink pussy hats and the women’s march (which yes was a step forward but we need to acknowledge issue so we can grow), by which i mean making a symbol that is not the unifier ppl at the top think it is. In terms of transness some trans women have this kind of body but given the length of waiting lists for the GIC most of us don’t so thats most trans women thrown out. a lot of trans men and some non-binary ppl also have these types of bodies and neither of those are women so they’re thrown out too cuz they ain’t gonna sit and be told they are smth they aren’t by ppl who are in one breath screaming for bodily autonomy and in action revoking that for ppl.
There is nothing to tell us this is the body of a woman other than holding it to a standard of that Wollstonecraft was working against.
So this isn’t really making a statement on womanhood or even women’s liberation as it’s as much a contrary to her beliefs as a memorial to her as heroine is. It says nothing about her views on women’s education or any of her work. Maggi Hambling has made a work for Wollstonecraft that relies on ideas that came after her, and so having sod all to do with her, so as to post-mortem delorean (stolen from a friend cuz its a fuckin gr8 phrase) her into a more modern feminism that relies on womanhood being biological and seeks its liberation in a woman being seen as their bodies, a thing Mary Wollstonecraft was evidently not rooting her own work in. Meanwhile women still don’t have equal access to education or access to safe housing, issues that she was concerned with.
this public sculpture has not only ignored the context within which it sits in the UK in 2020 but Wollstonecraft’s legacy as the ‘mother of feminism’, a self-educated woman from a background of abuse who set up girls boarding schools and sustained ‘passionate’ friendships with women like the illustrator Fanny Blood (yes that is her name and yes its a wonderful name we stan) and holding her own against the academics and intellectuals she mixed with.
Mary Wollstonecraft was a fantastic feminist theorist who taught herself and in teaching herself came to the conclusion that trans women were a part of the future of women’s liberation. British feminists, artists and art historians would do well to remember that as we watch bigots ignore her legacy in the way we have watched this public sculpture ignore her legacy too.