My Favorite Feminist: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

In honor of Women’s History Month, I want to honor my favorite (and too-little-known) feminist, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th century nun, poet and scholar.

Juana was born in 1648 in San Miguel Nepantla, Mexico, near Mexico City. She was officially registered as “a daughter of the Church” because her parents were unmarried. At the age of three, she followed an older sister to school and convinced a teacher to show her how to read. Juana taught herself all she could by reading her grandfather’s library and soon mastered logic, Latin and the Aztec language Nahuatl. She asked to be allowed to disguise herself as a man so that she could go to university, but was not given permission and had to continue to tutor herself. In a somewhat dramatic teenage display of commitment to her education, Juana cut off her hair every time she made a mistake in Latin.

In her mid-teens, Juana was sent to live with her aunt in Mexico City; by then, rumors of her prodigious intellect had spread to the capital and she was presented at the court of a new viceregal couple, Antonio Sebastian de Toledo (the Marquis de Mancera) and Leonor Carreto. They were so impressed with Juana that they invited theologians, jurists, philosophers and scholars to meet with her and conduct a question-and-answer test of her intellect. Juana surprised everyone with her impressive performance against the scholars and Leonor accepted Juana as a maid-in-waiting in her court. During her time in court, Juana was a bit of an intellectual celebrity and began to write poetry, often for celebratory occasions.

At 20, Juana entered the Convent of the Order of St. Jerome, which was then the only avenue through which she could continue her education (she even turned down several marriage proposals in order to continue focusing on her learning). There, she amassed a library of over 4,000 volumes, wrote poetry, carols and plays that were published and widely read, corresponded with nobles, held intellectual court and taught music and drama. Much of Sor Juana’s poetry is romantic and there is evidence to suggest that she was involved with the Countess de Pareda, one of her many benefactors.

Trouble began for Sor (Sister) Juana once her patronage from nobility waned. In 1690, Sor Juana critiqued a famous sermon given by Antonio de Vieira. The Bishop of Mexico, pretending to be impressed by her, asked Sor Juana to put her critique in writing. Without her knowledge, the Bishop published the critique under the pen name “Sor Filotea de la Cruz” and included a letter condemning her intellectualism as a woman. In a brave act of defiance, Sor Juana responded by publishing her most famous text, “Reply to Sor Filotea.” In it, Sor Juana defended the intellectual rights of women and the rights of women to have access to education, and condemned the Church for helping to keep women uneducated. Sor Juana explained the ways in which she believed education could be used to serve God and recounted her own life-long struggle to pursue education in a society that did not believe women should be learned. For daring to stand up to the patriarchal and misogynist policies of the Church, Sor Juana was officially censured. She was no longer allowed to publish her work, reading her work was prohibited by the Church and she was forced to give away her library of books. She died in the convent in 1695.

In his 1988 book Sor Juana: Or, The Traps of Faith Nobel Prize-winning author Octavio Paz rediscovered and contextualized Sor Juana’s texts for a new generation, since they had been mostly forgotten. Paz praised Sor Juana’s poetry and writings and even declared her a “universal poet.” In 1990, a powerful dramatic film was made about Sor Juana’s life, “I, the Worst of All,” which takes its title from an apology Sor Juana was forced to write to the Chuch. Sor Juana is now featured on Mexico’s 200 peso note and the former site of the Convent of the Order of St. Jerome, Sor Juana’s convent, is now the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana. I wrote a paper about Sor Juana in college and I’m still in awe of her fearless commitment to intellectual rights for women, her refusal to live a typical life and her unending determination to be educated in a time when women didn’t often have the chance to be.

Image of Sor Juana via Wikimedia Commons.

Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this remarkable woman with all of us.

  2. I was born in Mexico and we all know about Sor Juana but not her whole story. I wrote a series of monologues of the women of my lineage and I included Juana de Asbaje, her real name. She was one of the most powerful women we have in our history. Thank you for sharing this with the world!

  3. I've always loved Sor Juana's writings/poetry, and I knew of her feminism. I'm glad there are others in the world who can appreciated and be inspired by her story. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Alexandra Bonifield says:

    What an exceptional, creative woman! She deserves our celebration and honor!

  5. Thanks for the great article about a marvelous feminist. I knew a little bit about Sor Juana but wasn't aware of all she had done in her life. Her accomplishments and sacrifices should never be forgotten.

  6. In my book, The Quotable Woman: The First 5,000 Years, there are 15 quotations by Sor Juana. It's hard to pick a favorite, but among them are: "But, lady, as women, what wisdom may be ours if not the philosophies of the kitchen? Lupercio Leonardo spoke well when he said: how well one may philosophize when preparing dinner. And I often say, when observing these trivial details: had Aristotle* prepared victuals, he would have written more…" (from Letter to Sor Filotea), and "Critics: in your sight/no woman can win:/keep you out, and she's too tight;/she's too loose if you get in" (from Verses from "A Satirical Romance," St. 3, Samuel Beckett, tr.)

  7. Great story, well told — thanks!

  8. Luisanna Carrillo says:

    Hombres necios que acusáis
    a la mujer sin razón
    sin ver que sois la ocasión
    de lo mismo que cupáis

    I cannot describe the joy to see Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in this blog, and so praised by all of you! For all interested in the mind and life of the illustrious Mexican nun, EDSITEment, a project of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is creating its first AP Spanish bilingual academic unit on Sor Juana. A great way to start pioneering bilingual, Spanish-English, lesson plans! The unit is divided into two lesson plans, one on the sonnets of Sor Juana, and one on Sor Juana the feminist (Las Redondillas and La Respuesta a la muy ilustre Sor Filotea de la Cruz). The elements of the unit will continue to be added to the site, which already includes glossaries, featured online resources, interactives, suggested activities, etc.
    Let’s continue to celebrate this great woman and poet!

  9. Christina says:

    I really enjoyed this. I had not heard of her and feel greatful that I have now. I will want to learn more. Please continue to share great women of history. They were not in my history books and i feel a great loss.

  10. querida popularidad.
    ni en todo mi ciclo de vida alcanzaria a entender y mucho menos terminar la descripcion de no solo esta belleza de mujer de muchos mas personajes historicos que la tierra nos ha dado como parte de su naturaleza, ya que en realidad son contatos los grandes hombres ilustrados que sorprendentemente han legado a toda la humanidad.lo mas triste y que en verdad me hace infeliz es que ni yo ni tu y ni nadie , hoy en esta epoca de solo corrupcion, sentados comodamente, solo basta estirar la mano y todo lo adquieres asi de facil sin el mayor esfuerzo, de que hoy la tierra no ha producido a algun gran hombre o una mujer com sor juana o muchos mas. es triste muy triste nadie esta dispuesto al sufrimiento. todo se esta desgastando o desiquilibrando.

  11. Jesus Lopezvarela says:

    Thanks Dahlia Grossman-Heinze for sharing the awesome biography of this remarkable woman, especially now that we are accustomed to praise models, tv stars, and royalty women. I’am a father of two girls and I feel that women deserve to be respected in every way.

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