Mary Anning was an English fossil collector, dealer and paleontologist who became known around the world for important finds she made in Jurassic marine fossil beds in the cliffs along the English Channel at Lyme Regis in Southwest England. Her findings contributed to important changes in thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth. Needless to say, as a young girl interested in studying fossils, Anning was, and still is, one of my idols.
I looked up to her, gobbled up every bit of information I could find about her (which, at the time was unfortunately very little), and, to this day, remain completely fascinated with a woman who continued to do what she loved, even in the face of adversity.
As a female in 19th Century Britain, Anning was not allowed to fully participate in the scientific community which, at that time, was dominated by Anglican gentlemen. For much of her life, she struggled financially. Her family was poor, and her father, a cabinetmaker, died when she was just 11 years old.
Although she became well-known in geological circles around the world and was consulted on issues of anatomy as well as fossil collecting, as a woman, she was not eligible to join the Geological Society of London and she did not always receive credit for her scientific contributions, many of which were attributed to her brother or other males who purchased her discoveries.
After her death in 1847, her unusual life story attracted increasing interest. It has often been claimed that her story was the inspiration for the 1908 tongue-twister "She sells seashells on the seashore" by Terry Sullivan. In 2010, 163 years after her death, the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the 10 British women who have most influenced the history of science. Today, there is even a movie in the works about her.
Recently, while skimming Instagram, I found an organization dedicated to erecting a statue of Anning in her hometown to honor her legacy and contributions to the scientific community.
The organization, known as Mary Anning Rocks, was inspired by Evie, an 11-year-old who lives, studies, plays and fossil hunts in the same town where Anning once did the same.
According to the Mary Anning Rocks website, as Evie and her mother, Anya, were making their way off the beach from one of their many fossil hunts at Lyme Regis, Evie suddenly stopped and looked about her confused and asked her mother, “Why isn’t there a statue to Mary?”
“That was our light bulb moment,” said Anya. “I found myself having to explain why women 200 years ago were seen as inferior to men and how they had very little say in the way their lives would be. Explaining the class system to her and how Mary not only had to deal with the discrimination against her because of her gender but she also had to deal with the bigotry towards her because she was working-class and poor. Two things you really didn’t want to be in Victorian Britain were poor and a woman.”
From this realization was born Mary Anning Rocks, which seeks to acknowledge and remember Anning in a visual way, to give her a “tangible work of art that will not only give back a physical presence in her Lyme Regis, but will equally give the people of Lyme and the thousands of tourists that come to visit every year a focal point of remembrance and respect.”
“I want to build positive and empowering female role models for all our children to look up to,” Anya continued, noting that, like in America, there is little representation of women in civic monuments in the UK.
According to their website, more than 85 percent of statues in Great Britain celebrate the achievements and deeds of men; only 2.7 percent of civic monuments commemorate named women. In fact, there are more statues in the UK of men named John than there are of all women! In Dorset alone, where Anning was born, there are more statues of animals than there are of women.
A similar trend exists in the United States. According to a 2016 article from Smithsonian Magazine, “It’s way too hard to find statues of notable women in the U.S.,” of the more than 5,000 public statues depicting historical figures on display on street corners and parks throughout the United States, only around 400 of these monuments are of women. At the time of the publication of the article, none of the 44 memorials maintained by the National Parks Service, such as the Lincoln Memorial or the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, specifically focus on women. (An American group known as “Where Are The Women?” are looking to change that as well, and have been instrumental in campaigning to have statues of women’s rights pioneers Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton installed in Central Park.)
Mary Anning Rocks believes it’s about time we did something about this “symbolic annihilation of women both past and present.”
According to Anya, to engage an eminent sculptor (like Hazel Reeves) to do Mary justice “wasn’t going to be cheap.”
“We are looking at between £150,000 (about $196,340.10) to £200,000 (about $261,786.80) which will include the statue and also a learning legacy that will continue long after the statue has been erected,” she explained.
Since its founding last year, the organization has witnessed an outpouring of international attention and support from a number of individuals and organizations, including Sir David Attenborough and Paleontologist Jack Horner (another of my personal idols) just to name a few.
“The outpouring of love for Mary’s story has been truly awe-inspiring,” said Anya.
When I interviewed her earlier this week, Anya said they had some “top secret news” they can’t share at the moment, so I’m excited to see what that may be. To learn more about Mary Anning Rocks and the incredible mother/daughter duo behind the campaign, visit their website, www.maryanningrocks.co.uk/, or find them on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. Give them a follow if you’re so inclined. And, if you’d like to make a donation, or purchase a shirt (I know I am!), you can do so on their website. They will also be launching a crowdfunding page on Anning’s 220th birthday, May 21, 2019.