Juana inés de la Cruz
Born: 12 November, 1648 – San Miguel Nepantla, New Spain
Died: 17 April, 1695 – Mexico City, New Spain
Known as: a nun, philosopher, writer and feminist
In the 1600s, education for women was, in a word, unlikely. For women to be able to throw themselves passionately into learning, they would need to step away from the typical path of marriage and children, and into a different sort of marriage: marriage to God, with their new household a convent.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was one such woman who chose to evade marriage in favour of the religious life, and her writings cement her as one of the primary philosophers, writers and feminists of her day. Born in present-day Mexico, Sor Juana’s love for reading was nurtured from a young age – she would sneak away into the chapel on her grandfather’s estate, and eagerly immersed herself in the texts she found in its adjoining library. By three, she was reading and writing in Latin. At eight, she wrote her first poem.
Sor Juana was considered something of a child prodigy, and by 15, she was gracing the viceroy’s court as a lady in waiting. Renowned equally for her beauty and her intelligence, she would entertain the nobility with her poetry and theatrical work. The viceroy, impressed by this intelligent woman, reportedly summoned 40 scholars from the University of Mexico to question her on a variety of topics, from mathematics to philosophy. Even they – men with far more formal learning than Sor Juana, who was entirely self-educated – were astonished.
The oft-told narrative is that Sor Juana gave up thoughts of marriage to pursue her passion for Christ, and this too became part of Sor Juana’s later tale, cementing her in history’s mind as a noble, sacrificial woman, devoted to a higher cause. At the time, it was purely so as to continue studying. After joining the Hieronymite nuns, she steadily amassed a reputable library – one of the largest in New Spain at the time, boasting over 4,000 books. While she took her vows, she began writing, and regularly met with the greatest minds of the time.
Sor Juana wrote endlessly, creating a collection of works which included everything from lyric poetry to plays, to critiques of famous sermons. From 1680, she began writing love poetry to the Condesa de Paredes, wife of the new Viceroy. Sor Juana’s work was possible due to numerous benefactors – most notably, the new Viceroy and his wife. But, naturally, critics abounded, including the Archbishop of Mexico. He argued that Sor Juana was acting contrary to how women should. Further religious critics heaped shame on Sor Juana, scolding her for wasting her time “in the study of philosophers and poets”. In response, Sor Juana wrote her famous repuesta, in which she defended her right – and the right of every woman – to an education.
But by 1690, this was to come to an end. The Condesa followed her husband back to Spain, and immediately, Sor Juana’s protections were lost. In a targeted move by the church, a high-ranking bishop publicised her private critique of a Jesuit priest – a critique he had, in fact, commissioned. However, it was viewed as impudence in the extreme, and the Catholic church emphatically removed all her freedoms. The library, her writing, her scientific equipment were gone in one fell swoop, accompanied by a repentant confession signed “me, the worst of them all.”
The following year, Sor Juana died while caring for other nuns during the plague. Her legacy remains shrouded in some mystery, for Juana was in the unique position of influencing her own biography; however, modern audiences can be sure of one thing: Sor Juana Inés was incredibly influential in the realms of philosophy and literature, expressing herself in ways many women (and, indeed, some men) could not. Today, she is considered a crucial figure in Mexican history; her name is inscribed in gold on the wall of honour in Mexican congress, and appears on multiple currencies. And, in a way which might most please this nun who craved knowledge for an entire lifetime, she now has a university in her honour: the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana, based in Mexico City.