I first read about Juana Ines de la Cruz and her 17th century feminist poetry in Isabel Allende’s memoir, “The Soul of a Woman.” I immediately knew I needed to learn more, and the universe provided. The next day, her name came up in a textbook I was reading for an online class — just a brief mention of the fact that she amassed one of the largest personal libraries in North America while living in a convent as a nun. Obviously, I had to find out all I could.
Who was this feminist poet librarian nun? Only one of the most brilliant, accomplished women I never learned about in school. In a time when universities and learning were for solely for men, she managed to outshine many renowned scholars through a lifetime of self-directed education.
Juana Ramirez de Asbaje (her birth name) was born in 1648 in the Vice Royalty of New Spain, now known as Mexico. Her mother and father were not married, and Juana was raised in the homes of her mother’s relatives. From an early age, she displayed an almost unquenchable thirst for learning and knowledge, spending hours reading the books in her grandfather’s personal library.
She began writing poetry at age eight, and had an in-depth knowledge of Greek logic and of the Latin language by her teen years, even teaching Latin to younger children. She asked her family to allow her to disguise herself as a male so she could attend university classes, but they refused. She was forced to continue as the creator of her own education.
Later, she became a lady in waiting to the wife of the Viceroy Antonio Sebastian de Toledo, marquis de Mancera. Juana’s keen mind and accomplishments were apparent to everyone, and the viceroy invited a group of noted scholars to test her knowledge. They were so impressed they granted her the equivalent of a university degree, with no need to disguise herself.
A couple of years later, she chose the one path open to her as a woman that would allow her to continue pursuing her studies. She became a nun at the Convent of St. Paula, where she also taught girls in the subjects of drama and music. There she also wrote plays and poetry, amassed her personal library, and collected musical and scientific instruments.
Many of her writings tackled the sexist double standards of society, most notably “Foolish Men,” which criticizes men for displaying the very same illogical behavior they ascribe to women. Here’s one stanza:
“Whether you’re favored or disdained,
nothing can leave you satisfied.
You whimper if you’re turned away,
you sneer if you’ve been gratified.”
Her poem “First Dream” delves into what it means to have a life-long passion for learning and knowledge. Well, it’s a pretty long poem and that’s a simplistic summary of it. But here’s one fragment:
“In Homer’s opinion, then,
the pyramids were mere material versions,
outward manifestations only
of inner dimensions instancing
the human spirit’s attitude:
for just as the ambitious fiery flame
assumes pyramidal shape when mounting
heavenward, so the human mind
assumes this very shape
in ever aspiring to the one First Cause,
the center toward which the straight line tends,
if not indeed the circumference
containing every essence ad infinitum.”
Not everyone approved of Sor Juana’s achievements. In 1690, the bishop of Pueblo published a critique she had made of a priest’s sermon. The bishop used a false name, Sister Philothea, pretending to be a nun, and accompanied the piece with criticisms of Sor Juana, saying she should stop writing anything secular and instead concentrate on her religious studies.
In response, Sor Juana wrote and published a defense of the right of women to attain knowledge, “Reply to Sister Philothea of the Cross.” In it, she recounted the obstacles she had faced. “I went on with the studious pursuit (in which I found relaxation during all the free time remaining from my obligations) of reading and more reading, study and more study, with no other teacher than books themselves.” Later in the missive, she speaks of a period of time during which she had been forbidden to read. She said that she used that time to study the natural world instead. And this is where I find her truly inspiring. When someone put up a roadblock, she said, in effect, “Okay, I’ll make my own road.”
In 1694, her detractors within the church finally either persuaded or forced her to sell her library for alms and to give up writing. She died April 17, 1695 when a plague swept through her convent. But her influence continues to resonate generations later. I’m glad I found her.
Merrim, Stephanie. “Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 13 Apr. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sor-Juana-Ines-de-la-Cruz