Irritated by the internet furore over the new statue inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, I walked through my own local park – where the only statue is of an owl, painted with scenes from the nearby community. On my stroll I walked past a young woman, somewhere between 18 and 22, walking a large dog. Ahead of us were a group of three young men of around the same age. I passed by as if invisible, but as she came up behind me they commented admiringly on how you have to be strong to walk a dog like that.
She laughed in a way that is intimately familiar to me from my own experiences through my teens and twenties; less so now, when I suspect (quite thankfully!) I’m beginning to be put into a category marked as mum for the kind of young men who talk to women on the street. It was a polite laugh, the kind you make when you know a response is expected, where you know if you don’t respond the follow up may be less friendly.
I don’t think those young men had any intention of intimidating or harassing her. I doubt, though, that they thought very much about what she would think, either. They saw petite young woman with ponytail and leggings, and found the visual combination of that and a large dog appealing. I wondered idly if she had cropped hair and a baggy tracksuit if they would have ignored her, or if they might have joked that she looked like a dyke. And I thought that, however this person looked, whether they used the pronouns she or he or they to identify themselves, that they would have to think – even very briefly, even as a passing thought as part of a normal day – about how this group of men would respond as they walked by. The kind of daily weight there is in that, knowing yourself judged as you go through the world. Not as a person, but as a set of cultural expectations awkwardly mashed together with your biological and anatomical configurations.
If you are a person who either identifies as a woman, and/or you are a person who was assigned female at birth, you will be deeply familiar with the broader experience behind the polite laugh. Of making yourself small to avoid harassment because of how you are read by cis men. Frustratingly, people are still talking about patriarchy as if it’s about men vs women when of course the cisheteropatriarchy is about gender-confirming heterosexual cisgender men versus everyone else. How do Republicans stay in power when they are now a minority? Well, most of the world isn’t a cis, straight, conventionally-presenting man, either, but those guys have done pretty well over the millennia controlling the narrative of what it means to be human.
The Wollstonecraft statue is not meant to be of Wollstonecraft. The committee said: “The sculpture combines female forms which commingle and rise together as if one, culminating in the figure of a woman standing free. She is Everywoman, her own person, ready to confront the world.” That’s all very well, but – even putting aside the clear problem of having an idealized female body shape as everywoman – it is so very tiring to be every woman for every body. Women are overburdened with expectations to be everything for everyone: at home, in the workplace. Women of colour in particular bear the brutal edge of this. If they are great at their jobs, they must be ambassadors. They must give and give and give. They must be emblematic of their identities in a way that means their individuality is ironed flat. Or perhaps rubbed smooth, like the formless mass of women’s bodies that apparently forms the base of the statue.
Wollstonecraft wrote: “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.” I understand the artistic impulse, and the ideological one, to show this everywoman standing on the the achievements of the women who went before her; but I get the impression Wollstonecraft would have preferred each woman to be judged on her own merits.
Yesterday the “gender critical” writer Julia Long put a t-shirt over the statue, presumably because she, like many others, saw the statue’s nudity as “pornographic” or degrading. While I find the artist and committee’s desire to give the world yet another everywoman exhausting, I also find the instant turn to the word porn to categorise a naked human body exhausting. It was also of course an opportunity for Long to blow the accustomed anti-trans dogwhistle of presenting a definition of womanhood that is simple, binary, immutable; it’s a clever slogan because as a definition it seems to most people to be “common sense” – a gut instinct that we know historically has not been a good measure for providing human rights. And this visual protest merely confirms the statue’s identity as an everywoman, because it says: this is what a woman is. There is no freedom in that.