Tracking Down the Little Girl in a Mysterious Spanish Statue

Who is Clara Campoamor, and why did sculptor Anna Jonsson memorialize her as a child surrounded by books?

M y husband, baby, and I were on vacation in Andalusia. The thirteen month-old napped in the car while we drove to the next destination, the historical city center of Seville, then put him into a pack and tried to take in a site or two. We needed food. A recent rain had emptied most outdoor tables. We dove inside a restaurant on the Plaza de la Pescadería. The baby refused to stay put. He couldn’t yet walk, and his attempts at crawling his way across dirty floors to cobblestone squares made me nervous. I gulped down my meal, and, while my husband ate, carried the baby to a window. A few neighborhood kids were chasing a ball through the puddles. Baby was mesmerized — for five whole minutes.

Soccer. My eyes rested on the ball, tracing its movements. The kids pushed it between the empty café tables, using two of them as goalposts. One team took charge and ran the ball toward the pedestal of a small statue. The statue caught my attention. At that point in our trip, we’d encountered so many monuments to priests and monarchs that it took me a beat to understand that I was looking at something different.

Atop a bronze pedestal sat a little girl, also cast in bronze. She perched on a pile of books, a heavy, oversized volume precariously balanced on her lap. More books were piled at her feet and a few toys lay scattered on the pedestal next to her. The girl was unimposing, as though she were in her own home, occasionally interrupting her reading to caress a worn toy. When one of the kids hit her pedestal with the ball, all of them looked up, as though to check whether or not they had disturbed her reading.

Baby squirmed in my arms. He’d had enough of looking. He wanted to be out there, chasing the ball through the puddles. The whole puddle business attracted his great attention. Dirt! Water! Bubbles! Water! We needed to move.

I took a quick snapshot of the statue. As soon as my husband finished eating, we put the baby back in the pack and ran for the next site on our itinerary.

When one of the kids hit her pedestal with the ball, all of them looked up, as though to check whether or not they had disturbed her reading.

Upon our return to San Francisco, I posted the travel photos online. A friend saw the little girl statue that had transfixed me for just a moment and translated the inscription on the pedestal. It was erected in 2007 by sculptor Anna Jonsson and dedicated by the city of Seville to the memory of Clara Campoamor “for her incalculable contribution to the work of women’s rights.” But who was Clara Campoamor? What had she done to deserve this kind of commemoration in the center of one of Europe’s most famous cities?

It took just a few clicks to gather the basics. Campoamor is to Spain what Susan B. Anthony is to the United States. In 1931, Campoamor swayed the government of the newly established Spanish Republic to extend full suffrage to women. “Only he who does not consider women to be human would affirm that all human and civil rights should not be the same for women as for men,” Campoamor had said during the debates. “A Constitution that gives the vote to beggars, to servants, and to illiterates — of which there are some in Spain — cannot deny it to women.” Her rhetoric proved convincing. Decades later, a score of schools and cultural institutions bear her name; her visage has graced stamps and coins; a recent television film dramatized her achievement in the suffrage debates; in 2006, for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the vote on suffrage, a larger-than-life bronze bust of Campoamor was erected in Madrid. That same anniversary, in 2006, occasioned the city of Seville to commission its statue.

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According to photographs I found online, the Madrid bust of Clara Campoamor follows an image of Campoamor produced at the time when she, a successful lawyer, had been elected to a seat on the Spain’s Constituent Assembly. The neck of the sculpture appears exaggerated — it’s nearly as broad as her face, the sternomastoid muscles bulging. In Russian (my first language), I would describe this as a “bull’s neck” — the neck of a powerful and dangerous animal. Campoamor’s chin looks slightly upturned and her lips are extended into a quiet smile, suggesting the idea of hope and aspiration. Her short hair is combed in waves as though wind is blowing against her face. A gentle wind, by no means a storm. In the Seville statue I’d glimpsed a different story.

I read on. Campoamor was born in Madrid in 1888 (that year Susan B. Anthony organized an International Council of Women in Washington, D.C.). Her mother was a dressmaker and her father worked as an accountant in a local newspaper. When he died, ten-year old Campoamor had to quit school to help her mother. She began as a part-time seamstress and went on to a variety of menial jobs. It is this ten-year old who nurtures her dreams by reading big books that I saw in bronze on the Plaza de la Pescadería. This girl is gathering resilience for the challenging road ahead.

It is this ten-year old who nurtures her dreams by reading big books that I saw in bronze on the Plaza de la Pescadería. This girl is gathering resilience for the challenging road ahead.

Campoamor eventually became a telegraph operator and then a typist and a typing teacher. In her twenties, she wrote for popular newspapers, arguing for the rights of women, and, in particular, poor women. At the age of 33, she enrolled at the University of Madrid School of Law and participated in the debating societies in Madrid. She earned her degree at the age of 36 and was 44 at the time she won the election to the Constituent Assembly. Following the exile of King Alfonso XIII, in 1931, the Constituent Assembly was tasked with composing the brand new Republic’s constitution. Campoamor was one of only two women in the Assembly. Victoria Kent was the other and, for political reasons, argued against Campoamor on the question of suffrage. Having won the vote for all women, Campoamor lost the political battle and in 1933 was not reelected to the Assembly. In 1936, fearing for her life during the Spanish Civil War, she fled the country. Franco’s regime barred her from returning to Spain. She spent several years in Argentina, writing a biography of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and later settled in Switzerland. Until her death in 1972, she continued to write on topics of feminism and her experiences in politics.

The friend who had translated the monument’s inscription shared with me a link to the sculptor’s webpage. The site was surprisingly easy to navigate in English. Anna Jonsson’s body of work was divided into four sections, “Sculptures” — all, with the exception of the Clara Campoamor sculpture, in brightly colored clay; “Embroideries,” “Dance-Performance,” and “The Super-Violeta Channel.” The biographical note explained, “Anna Jonsson was born in Skellefteå, Sweden in 1961 and has been resident in Seville since 1982 where she came to study Fine Arts. . . . Anna is a multidisciplinary artist, but sculpture has formed the basis for all her work.”

The commission for the Campoamor statue had been a competitive one, which Jonsson won. A few members of the local press had been upset that the winner was not a Seville native. Others expressed some confusion about the relevance of the depiction of an iconic female figure as a young child. Campoamor’s name had come to bear heft, and some criticized Jonsson’s imaginative approach as not reverent enough. My friend ended her note with the link to the artist’s social media page.

Campoamor’s name had come to bear heft, and some criticized Jonsson’s imaginative approach as not reverent enough.

Anna Jonsson responded to my email within days. In the next few weeks, we emailed back and forth, and she provided fuller back story about the monument on the Plaza de la Pescadería and how it became a part of Seville.

“My thoughts were, How do you pay homage to a person you really admire?” Jonsson wrote. “How do you get people to want to learn more about her? Typically, you would recommend a book by or about that person. I would like everyone to read Campoamor; everyone, and especially my own beloved daughters. So I created a girl in the space of her own, her room with toys and books. Campoamor was a lawyer; therefore, among the toys is a blindfolded doll and a mouse resting on a scale. When it rains, the cup of the scale fills with water and it looks like the mouse is swimming. The titles on the spines of the books provide clues on how to read women’s history: History in between, in limbo, invisible, purple . . . and yes! the keys to history — Who won the war? Who wrote the book?”

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The books are titled “Historias obvidades,” “Historias violetas,” “Historias invisibiles,” and so on. While preparing to work on the sculpture, Jonsson reread Campoamor’s writing. Johnson wrote, “I read books by her and about her. What most impressed me was her performance in Congress during the debates on the women’s right to vote. Her speech was so outstanding, so clear-sighted, so clever and respectful — she made the rest of them sound like fools. At the time everyone was persuaded by Campoamor’s eloquence.”

Though initially the sculpture received some criticism, it has become a beloved site for locals and the tourists alike. “The neighbors in the plaza like it, they even tried to make it a place for exchanging books,” Jonsson wrote. Unfortunately, “this initiative ended when the city cleaners threw the books away.” Architecture and fine arts students have used the sculpture for their projects; it has received attention from a prize-winning photographer and even a theater company that wanted to use it for a performance. Tour guides include the sculpture on their routes, and the city cleaners do a great job of removing any occasional graffiti. Jonsson clarified, “The sculpture has been very little vandalized which is really amazing, considering that there are restaurants, pubs, and a disco in the square. I feel that people care about the girl. I wonder if she somehow touches upon everyone’s protection instinct.”

This tenderness enchanted me. I began working on an essay about the artist and her statue — my own artistic reaction to the statue. But it took a long time — over a year —to get it right. Then I realized that while I’d been identifying with the little girl, measuring my own childhood and abilities against that of little Clara Campoamor, Jonsson had approached her creation as though the famous feminist were her little girl — a child who needed her care.

While I’d been identifying with the little girl, measuring my own childhood and abilities against that of little Clara Campoamor, Jonsson approached her creation as though the famous feminist were her little girl — a child who needed her care.

She was mothering her work. Though technically I’d been a mother at the time when I encountered the girl, my baby had been very much attached then, he still felt like a part of my body. It wasn’t until a few months after the trip, when he started calling me “mama” that I began to suspect that I was one. Jonsson’s description of her statue — I’d been thinking of it often — finally landed, allowing me to understand that my point of view was shifting.

The shift is not linear, but rather a matter of adding something like a new photo filter to the existing array. My relationship with Anna Jonsson’s artwork revealed this clearly.

That winter in Seville, on the Plaza de la Pescadería, the transaction was quick. I saw the statue of the little girl and recalled my own childhood, surrounded by books. I identified with the girl the feeling of staring at the pages of the books and trying to extrapolate from them the road ahead, the future as yet unwritten, a life filled with possibilities. That girl could grow up to be anyone she wanted to be — and, looking at her, I felt like I still could, too.

When I return the image of the sculpture all these months later, knowing something about Clara Campoamor and her work, I still face the representation of her as a little girl. The sense of possibility is still there, but it’s curbed now by what I know about the facts of her life. Campoamor made an important difference in the lives of women, and yet I imagine her own filled with disappointment in things small and large. I know and so does Jonsson what it’s like to live in a country not one’s own (Jonsson has referred to her own experience as being “an inbetweener”), but she and I have chosen our homes and can only imagine what it must’ve been like for Campoamor to live out her life as an exile. Women of Spain have held on to their right to vote through the years of Franco’s dictatorship, but the battle for representation and equality is by no means over.

Jonsson wrote that the girl “somehow touches upon everyone’s protection instinct.” The desire to help, to do something for the girl feels urgent. I wonder: What could I have done for Clara Campoamor had I been her mother? How could I have mothered her in such a way as to help her build the resilience and strength needed to accomplish what I know she must on a road that is so singular and solitary? More than that, I wish for her to have arrived at the end of her life with the same sense of accomplishment I have when I look at her chapter in history in retrospect. I want to comfort her by reminding her of her own importance.

What could I have done for Clara Campoamor had I been her mother? How could I have mothered her in such a way as to help her build the resilience and strength needed to accomplish what I know she must on a road that is so singular and solitary?

Studying Anna Jonsson’s site, I’d spent some time on the page titled “The SuperVioleta Channel.” This is a series of feminist videos, executed in an absurdist style. In my favorite of these, “Perdón,” a young girl wearing a purple wig and made up to look middle aged repeats the single word apology, “perdón, perdón, perdón, perdón” for three and a half minutes, varying her expressions and intonations, reflecting the multitude of ways in which women say they are sorry. The effect is haunting.

I asked Jonsson about the collaborative aspect of her art. I had expected her to talk about the work itself, her artistic vision— instead, Jonsson focused on her two daughters. Ingrid and Greta have been her models, and from the beginning, they have also been her co-creators. Both girls grew up to be artists. The older, Ingrid García Jonsson, has achieved some prominence as an actor in Madrid. The younger, Greta, is a dancer who is also studying law. At first, most collaborative ideas came from the mother, but as time went on, Jonsson has become a participant in her daughters’ creative work. “It’s a privilege having someone so close to you who always supports your crazy projects.”

In this context, I ponder the Clara Campoamor sculpture anew. What if this little Clara really were my own daughter? If motherhood, considered in historical terms, feels like a weighty responsibility to which I’m decidedly not equal, Jonsson’s words sound hopeful. Perhaps being an artist — or a writer, or a lawyer — and a mother doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition. One doesn’t need to take away from another, but could instead nourish and enrich the other. This realization, however, requires a change of attitude and an act of resistance to a dominant cultural trope.

Becoming a mother means, it turns out, becoming a mother in my imagination. Becoming a mother also means becoming a mother to my imagination. I’ve been given an opportunity to transform my imagination, to guide it from the achievement-dominated myths about work that I’ve inherited and to look instead for plots that are additive and creative.

Becoming a mother means, it turns out, becoming a mother in my imagination. Becoming a mother also means becoming a mother TO my imagination.

Clara Campoamor changed something very real in the world, but I doubt that as a little girl she had set out to defend women’s rights. It’s heartening to see Spain celebrating her accomplishments. All the more, it’s exciting that in portraying Campoamor as a little girl, Anna Jonsson has enabled us to see her not through the power of her achievements but through the everyday scene of her as a child with a wide open future.

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