Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, 17th Century Scholar and Feminist Poet

Attribution: José Luis Filpo Cabana, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

~~

Sources:

Merrim, Stephanie. “Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 13 Apr. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sor-Juana-Ines-de-la-Cruz

https://poets.org/poet/sor-juana-ines-de-la-cruz

Focus on Indie Arts: Triflemore

One of the great blessings in my life is that somehow I have become acquainted with a number of accomplished writers, artists, craftspeople, and musicians. I try to save most of my book, art and music budget for those independently producing their own work, or who are just starting out — folks who have worked hard to produce something great, but haven’t already amassed a huge amount of money doing so. It’s important at all times to support independent artists, but even more so currently.

I wondered what I could do to help promote this. And then it came to me. Aha! I’m a blogger. I can at least let my few readers know about some artistic delights of which they might be as yet unaware. I’m going to try to do this semi-regularly.

First up is Triflemore, touring musicians who describe their sound as zenfolk. I met them first as good and caring neighbors, discovering later they’re excellent musicians as well.

I’m not expert enough in musical parlance to write in-depth reviews. What I can say is that the feel of their music often makes me envision rolling green hills and groups of people sitting around fires, visiting after a long day of productive work. Definite Celtic vibes, with contemplative lyrics that somehow pull off the paradox of feeling grounded while simultaneously taking flight.

One of my favorites among their song library is Regarding Shoes, from their album, The Astonishingly Disruptive Nature of Kindness (and Other Worthwhile Pursuits.)

DYI Fact Checking. Part One: Intro and Basics

Welcome to my new series, of indeterminate length and structure. With the constant barrage of news and editorials, conflicting statements and charges of fake news, it can feel overwhelming to try to know what’s really true. There are a number of fact-checking websites, but not all of them are equal and I know a few folks who despair of knowing which of those to believe, too.

I am here to tell you there are steps you can take on your own to verify what you read and hear. It may never be possible to pin down 100% every last detail, but many times you can at least get a better idea of the probability of whether a news item is true, false, a  mixture, or something else, such as woefully out of context.

But wait! Why should you trust that I know what I’m talking about? In the end, you’ll have to make your own evaluation. I can tell you I have a job that involves a goodly amount of research. For 14 years, I’ve worked at a public library, and 11 of those years have been in public services, where I answer a fair few reference questions. Training for the job includes identifying primary sources, and evaluating the reliability of other sources.

So, on to the first basic steps of doing your own fact checking. Often, the tools you need to do a quick fact check are right at hand. It isn’t necessarily a complicated process. For the most part, it involves reading with a critical eye and asking the right questions. Here’s a good example:

Screen Shot 2018-02-23 at 9.43.52 AM

How many times have you seen the image above shared on social media? I believe people are not stopping to check it because it seems innocuous, and I guess it is. That’s why I chose it, because it’s not political. First step: stop and think about whether the information presented is likely. In this case, no. Second step: determine if there is an easily accessible source to double-check the accuracy of the information. Why, yes! Look at a calendar. Often times, it’s that simple.

Let me re-emphasize step one. Stop and think, especially before you share.

Since one of my goals is to ease the feeling that sussing out the facts is overwhelmingly difficult, I’ll leave things here for today. This concludes lesson one.