Born in New Spain (now Mexico) in 1651, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a nun who wrote what is considered the first feminist manifesto. She was revered as a prodigy during her lifetime, and was one of the most widely published writers of the period.
The illegitimate child of a creole woman and a Spanish captain, Juana came from a poor family. She was raised in the country in the home of her mother’s father. At the age of three, Juana followed her sister to a girls’ school and begged to be taught to read. She soon began devouring the books of the grandfather’s library, reading everything she could get her hands on.
Juana had an insatiable appetite for knowledge, and all the books in her grandfather’s hacienda were not enough. She asked her mother to be allowed to go to the university in Mexico City disguised as a boy, but her mother unsurprisingly didn’t think that was a good idea. However, she did consent to send Juana to Mexico City to study under a scholarly priest.
In Mexico City, Juana became fluent in Latin after only 20 lessons, and began to write poetry in Latin, Spanish, and some in Nahuatl (an Aztec language). She punished herself for not learning fast enough by cutting her hair short if she didn’t meet her own deadlines.
Juana became known in court as a child prodigy. The viceroy of New Spain, the Marquis de Mancera, was impressed by her knowledge, and tested her with a barrage of learned men, theologians, philosophers, mathematicians, historians, poets, and other specialists. During this time at court she continued writing poems and sonnets. The Marquis’ wife, impressed by Juana’s intellect, chose Juana to serve as her handmaiden.
At the age of 20, Juana entered the Convent of the Order of St. Jerome and took her vows as a nun. In the convent, she had her own study and library, and the freedom to meet with men of learning from the Court and University. She wrote many poems and plays, was skilled at music and music theory, and studied all branches of knowledge including philosophy and natural science.
Thought she doubtless had suitors during her time at court, Juana had no interest in marriage: “I took the veil because […] it would, given my absolute unwillingness to enter into marriage, be the least unfitting and the most decent state I could choose.”
Juana had the freedom to study and write in the convent because of the protection of benefactors such as the Viceroy and his wife. Always under a barrage of attacks against her “unfeminine” thirst for knowledge, Juana considered her own intellect a mixed blessing:
“I thought I was fleeing myself, but — woe is me! — I brought myself with me, and brought my greatest enemy in my inclination to study, which I know not whether to take as a Heaven-sent favor or as a punishment.”
In 1688, her current benefactors, the Marquis and Marquise de la Laguna, departed for Spain, leaving Sor Juana to face her criticizers alone. Chief among them is the Archbishop of Mexico, who was fiercely misogynistic and strongly opposed to secular drama such as Juana wrote.
The famous “manifesto” Sor Juana wrote was a response to criticisms from a supposed friend. In 1690, Juana had, in confidence, given a written critique of a famous sermon to a Bishop, who then turned around and published it without her permission. Along with Juana’s critique, the Bishop included a pseudonymous letter of his own admonishing her for her intellectual pursuits. (“Letters engendering pride in women are not pleasing to God.” “You have wasted much time in the study of philosophers and poets.”)
Sor Juana responded with her famous letter simply named “Respuesta” (meaning “reply” or “response”), which passionately and cleverly defended her thirst for learning. In the letter, she recounts her intellectual history, and defends her own and all women’s right to education.
“Who has forbidden women to engage in private and individual studies? Have they not a rational soul as men do?…I have this inclination to study and if it is evil I am not the one who formed me thus – I was born with it and with it I shall die.”
Towards the end of Sor Juana’s life (as it happens with so many women in history), the details are scarce. What we do know is that in 1692-93, Mexico City saw flooding, disease, and food riots which weakened the power of the court. In 1693 there was an ecclesiastical investigation that involved Juana. In 1694, the same year of her 25th anniversary as a nun, Juana signed affirmations stating that she planned to donate of all her books, maps and instruments to be sold to help the poor. It’s unknown whether she did so of her own volition or under duress, but even if it was her own choice, it was an understandable capitulation to the pressures and criticisms she had endured her entire life. Only a year later, Sor Juana succumbed to a plague after caring for her sick sisters.
“I went on with my studious task of reading and still more reading, study and still more study, with no teacher besides my books themselves. What a hardship it is to learn from these lifeless letters, deprived of the sound of a teacher’s voice and explanations; yet I suffered all these trials most gladly for the love of learning.”
Image of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
KeriLynn Engel is an autodidact and women’s history buff who founded Amazing Women in History in 2011.