Every year that I research women to profile for Women’s History Month, I fall a little bit in love with some of the women I highlight. This year’s crush is Sor (Sister) Juana Inés de la Cruz: poet, philosopher, composer, and Hieronymite nun.
I know, right???
Juana was born sometime around 1648 in Mexico, and by all accounts, about 350 years too early. While Juana Inés might have been ready for the world, the world she was born into wasn’t ready for her. It’s a familiar story. A chromosomal coin toss meant that as a girl, Juana was denied a formal education. But she didn’t allow that pesky XX obstacle to stop her. She spent a good deal of her childhood at her maternal grandfather’s hacienda, where she hid out in the library, reading. And read and learn she did.
Accounts have her reading by the age of three. By five, it is reported she was doing the accounts. At eight, she wrote a poem about the church, and by the time she was a teenager, had mastered Greek logic, and was teaching Latin to younger children. Oh, and if that’s not impressive enough, she also learned and was writing short poems in the Aztec language of Nahuatl.
All self-taught, natch.
So much for women not having brains big enough to learn, right?
At 16, she went to live in Mexico City, but was unable to obtain a formal education (that pesky XX thing again), and so she continued on her own. She ended up as a lady-in-waiting at the court of a viceroy. The viceroy, having heard about the wunderkind in his court, wanted to “test” Juana’s intellect. So he “invited several theologians, jurists, philosophers, and poets to a meeting, during which she had to answer many questions unprepared and explain several difficult points on various scientific and literary subjects. The manner in which she acquitted herself astonished all present and greatly increased her reputation.”
She was 17.
By 19, it seems like Juana Inés was growing tired of their crap and she got herself to a nunnery for some peace and quiet and the chance to continue her studies as she saw fit.
For further discussion: we often view young women and nunneries as banishment and punishment, and while no doubt the cloistering of young women was a way to do just that, we should also ask how many were simply looking from an escape from marriage, a place to learn, or just a room of one’s own to do whatever they were forbidden to do in the outside world.
Throughout her lifetime, Sor Juana’s poems included “Since I’m Condemned” and “You Foolish Men”:
You foolish men who lay The guilt on women Not seeing you’re the cause Of the very thing you blame
She also wrote about the church with a capital “C”. And the Church…didn’t like her too much.
In 1690, the bishop of Puebla basically told Sor Juana that she’d be better off focusing on her religious studies instead of secular ones. He thought she should give up her writings and devote herself to prayer like a good nun.
In a rebuttal, she defended the right of all women to attain knowledge and “famously wrote (echoing a poet and a Catholic saint), “One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper,”
Basically, hey Bishop dude, I can walk and chew gum at the same time. Can you?
Sor Juana didn’t only defend a woman’s right to a formal education. She thought that women should serve as intellectual authorities, not only “through the act of writing, but also through the publication of their writing.” And this humdinger of an argument: If you put women, especially older women, in charge of educating other women, you’d avoid any dangerous situation involving male teachers in intimate settings with young females.
She was condemned for her “waywardness”.
By 1693, it seems she had stopped writing (possibly to avoid a censure), and there is evidence that in 1694 she signed a document agreeing to do penance.
She signed that document, (this is my favorite part of the story) “Yo, la Peor de Todas” or “I, the worst of all women”.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz died in a plague in 1695, caring for her fellow nuns.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a feminist before the word feminist or the ideaology of feminism existed. Which is important.
It’s important because we are told, over and over again, that “this is just the way things were,” and to blithely and unquestionably accept that pithy statement as an excuse for oppression, mistreatment, and systemic misogyny.
Except that all along there were women who did not believe that this was the way things should be. At every step of the way there have been women advocating for themselves and for others.
The versions of history we have assume that everyone happily accepted the status quo as the natural order of things.
Uhhh….no ma’am. They did not.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was questioning the authority of the Church and demanding the right to an education 350 years ago…and yet I only learned her name in 2021.
A history which does not include dissent, which does not include all is not an accurate or complete history.
Let’s do better.Happy Women’s History Month!
Yo, la Peor de Todas
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