The prospect of a lifesize statue of Virginia Woolf in the capital is moving closer, with a fundraising event this week that campaigners hope will help reach their £50,000 target.
It makes perfect sense that Virginia Woolf should be honoured: she was perhaps the best known of the modernist writers in the early part of the 20th century, an innovator of stream-of-consciousness writing. She is recognised for her classic novels including Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, and brilliant feminist essays such as A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas.
In fact, the campaign to have her recognised was aided by the backlash against another female statue – one honouring the writer, philosopher and founding mother of western feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft. Unveiled last month, the statue controversially portrayed a naked woman with a buff gym-body and abundant pubic hair. The fact it took over 200 years for Wollstonecraft’s life to be commemorated only added to the sense of outrage.
Women have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to statues – a 2018 study found they were represented by only 174 statues of 828 surveyed in Britain. Yet, for me, many assumptions around gender need updating too.
Today these feminist icons are seen to deserve lasting recognition not only because of their achievements, but because they are somehow one of “us”. The artist behind the Wollstonecraft statue, Maggi Hambling, describes the figure as an “everywoman”. Woolf campaigner Cheryl Robson suggests her bronze form, near Richmond Bridge on a terrace overlooking the Thames, will provide girls and women with a role model. The sculpture includes a bench so that members of the public can engage in conversation with the author – a lovely idea, though deeply ironic considering Woolf was a notorious snob.
Yet do Woolf and Wollstonecraft really represent all women? Both were born into wealthy families and their writing is steeped in the language and ideology of the British empire. Woolf herself had the freedom to write largely thanks to money inherited through her family’s colonial activities. And in her most famous essay about women and writing, A Room of One’s Own, she disparages a silent and very alien “negress” who apparently does not count as a woman.
Wollstonecraft herself built an argument on the value of women as intelligent and deserving of education by comparing them over and over to objectified slaves – 80 times, no less, in her landmark text A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792. And as writer and professor Moira Ferguson makes clear in her book Subject to Others, Wollstonecraft pushed for political enfranchisement for white women while dehumanising black women and men.
These feminist writers might be a long way from the likes of white supremacists Cecil Rhodes and Edward Colston, whose statues were targeted by anti-racism campaigners. Still, the representation of these two feminist figures as down-to-earth is well wide of the mark.
Evidence that Wollstencraft, Woolf and many other feminists of the past spared little if any thought to advocating for women of colour should not be swept under the carpet. Do modern-day feminists really want to imitate those in power who have long omitted “unhelpful” passages of history?
Britain’s lack of statues of women is bad enough, but it is pitiful too that only two represent black women: one for Crimean war nurse Mary Seacole; the other for Olympian Kelly Holmes.
Hopefully we’ll see statues in the future representing a broader range of women. After all, Britain’s outstanding women have not all been white and posh. Surely deserving is Mary Prince, the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition to parliament, and the first black woman to write and publish an autobiography, in 1831. A petition is currently under way to install a statue of her outside the Museum of London Docklands.
Another contender must be Phillis Wheatley, who in 1773 became the first female writer of African heritage to be published in the English language. A plaque commemorating her achievement was installed outside London’s Dorsett City hotel last year.
And let’s not forget women who may not have written works of literature or led battles or joined parliament. For example, the British Jamaican-born pre-Raphaelite model Fanny Eaton, whose presence supported the development of artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the 19th century. Eaton has been left out of history, unlike contemporaries such as Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris. Eaton raised 10 children and worked a series of jobs as a seamstress, a cook and cleaner. Her relatives are battling to have a plaque in her name.
Statues invite us to ask questions about who should be valued and why. Imagine the difference it would make if, rather than the stiff privileged men on plinths, we could see statues of amazing women from different backgrounds who contributed to society leading campaigns, or writing songs, or fostering children, perhaps? It would surely send an inspirational, and inclusive, message to all of us.
• Claire Hynes teaches literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia