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Horace Walpole once called Mary Wollstonecraft 'a hyena in petticoats.'Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

The great 18th-century feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft defied orthodox thinking and behaviour throughout her short life, not least in terms of feminine dress. As her biographer Charlotte Gordon writes, she “refused to twist her hair into ringlets, paint her cheeks with rouge, or wear a frilly gown.”

She did wear dresses, just sombre ones. Horace Walpole once called her “a hyena in petticoats,” which tells you that she got under ol' Horace’s wig with her radical notions of female emancipation. So what would Wollstonecraft think of the new statue erected in her honour in London, which depicts a naked female figure rising out of a metallic cloud, very near the school for girls she founded more than two centuries ago?

We will never know; Wollstonecraft’s bones rest next to her daughter Mary Shelley’s in the south of England. But her feminist followers have made it clear they are not happy with this idealized, unclothed woman who looks like she’s getting into the shower after a Peleton class. Would a famous man be honoured with his private bits out, asked Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett in the Guardian. Or, as Caitlin Moran put it, "I just KNOW the streets will soon be full of statues depicting John Locke’s shiny testicles, Nelson Mandela’s proud penis, and Descartes' adorable arse.''

Maggi Hambling, who created the statue, has fired back at the criticism, saying that the sculpture is not meant to be a literal representation of the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The dedication on the plinth, she told the BBC, clearly explains that the sculpture is “'for' Mary Wollstonecraft, it’s not ‘of’ Mary Wollstonecraft. Clothes define people and restrict people, they restrict people’s reaction. She’s naked and she’s every woman.”

Should she be an everywoman, though? For centuries, the only time women saw themselves represented in public spaces, it was as some amorphous representation of a classical ideal. Justice. Liberty. Motherhood. Suffering. Not as – let’s say – an individual who survived an abusive childhood, founded a girls' school, had one baby out of wedlock, gave birth to another who became a great novelist, and defied all criticism and convention to write one of the defining philosophical texts of the modern age. I’d like to see a sculpture of that woman!

These are the arguments we will be having more in the future, as the number of public statues of women grows from “visible only with an electron microscope” to “merely tiny.” In London, where the campaign for Wollstonecraft’s statue took 10 years and roughly $250,000 of donors' cash, only one in 10 statues represents a non-royal woman. I have not been able to find a comparable figure for Toronto, where I live, but I can argue with some confidence that there are more statues of dogs than famous women. At least with dogs you don’t have to worry if they’ll be wearing a dress or pants.

Or, indeed, any of the other tricky issues that arise with public sculptures. We are moving through an era where we’re finally pulling down metal dudes in frock coats who were valorized for their ability to make money buying and selling human lives, or for going to war to preserve that tradition. This is a very good thing. But what replaces those sculptures? Who decides on the new memorials, and who makes them, and where should they go? Are they shiny and blank-eyed everywomen, or tired and creased old warriors of justice – perhaps not as pretty, but certainly more real?

In New York, these battles are happening right now, and they’re fascinating. Two recent “feminist” public statues were criticized for failing to live up to expectations. Fearless Girl, the pigtailed youngster who stood up to the charging metal bull on Wall Street, turned out to be a corporate stunt created by a financial services firm that later settled a federal lawsuit for underpaying its female employees. More recently, a statue of Medusa carrying the head of Perseus (thus inverting the myth and the famous Cellini statue) was installed near the courthouse where Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of rape earlier his year. That sculpture was criticized for being too Eurocentric, too conventionally beautiful, too focused in the male gaze.

At least New York is trying. Through its She Built NYC campaign, it’s in the process of developing seven public monuments to women who have been vital to the city’s development (less than 5 per cent of New York’s historic sculptures are devoted to women).

Why can’t Canada undertake the same effort? Our public acknowledgement of the women who built our history is dismal, with some notable exceptions. Last month, for example, the city of Cobourg on Lake Ontario unveiled a bronze statue of Fern Blodgett Sunde. You’re probably saying “Huh? Who?” and that’s part of the problem.

Ms. Sunde was the first woman to receive a wireless operator’s licence in Canada, and she was a valiant radio operator during the Second World War. Neither the British nor Canadian navies would have her, so she enlisted on a Norwegian merchant ship, where she helped keep the Atlantic supply lines safe through her communications duties. (She also later married the captain of her ship. I can only hope a biopic is in the works.)

The statue of Ms. Sunde, created by Tyler Fauvelle, depicts her in typical work gear she would have worn on the ship, her headphones around her neck, the sea breeze lifting her hair. She looks like a normal, heroic woman. How ordinary, and how radical. More of that, please.

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