Our Hemisphere’s First Feminist

I’m referring to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Sister Juana Inés of the Cross), renowned poet and playwright of her time, who lived in Mexico City (then part of New Spain) in the second half of the seventeenth century. Recently I pulled an old anthology of her writings off my poetry shelf for another project, and she drew me so powerfully into her mind and world that I decided to write this post—to introduce others to her.

From childhood, Juana craved learning. Being a girl and hence barred from formal education, she commenced to teach herself—drawing on her grandfather’s library. When a new viceregal couple took her under their wing, she was brought into courtly society, where she was admired for her intelligence and wit. But as she reached marriageable age, she chose to enter a convent, a common move in New Spain for young women who wanted to avoid marriage for whatever reason. For Juana, of course, the reason was to continue her studies and her writing, which the domesticity of marriage and childbearing would have prevented.

The convent turned out not to be ideal for Juana (now Sor Juana) to follow her intellectual vocation, because she had lots of communal duties there. But she did find time to hide herself away for reading, study, and writing poetry and plays (both secular and religious). The viceregal couple continued to promote her writings, and her fame spread.

Soon a battle among clerics, too convoluted to trace here, led her bishop (interestingly using the female pseudonym Sor Philothea) to write her a letter admonishing her for not using her intelligence to focus on Jesus Christ and the Bible. (“It is a pity that so great a mind should stoop to lowly earthbound knowledge and not desire to probe into what transpires in heaven.”) The bishop’s letter led to what is considered the most remarkable of all of Sor Juana’s writings: the 16,000-word Reply to Sor Philothea, dated March 1, 1691.

In this Reply, after relating the thirst for learning that God had given her ever since childhood, she responds directly (and brilliantly) to the bishop’s charge that she favors secular knowledge over theological. The summit of knowledge which she strives for, she says, is “sacred theology,” but “to reach this goal, I considered it necessary to ascend the steps of human arts and sciences.” Her reasoning:

“How, lacking logic, was I to understand the general and specific methodologies of which Holy Scripture is composed? How, without rhetoric, could I understand its figures, tropes, and locutions?” And so on, through physics, arithmetic, geometry, history, music, and architecture (“How, without a knowledge of architecture, is one to understand Solomon’s great temple, of which God Himself was the artificer?”)

Next Sor Juana relates her having been “persecuted” for her love of learning, which in a man would be praised. Which leads to her famous arguments for women’s studying:

First, she recalls the many outstanding women of Scripture who have inspired her: for instance, Debora (Judges 4-5), who “set up laws in both military and political spheres”; Abigail (1 Kings and 1 Samuel), “endowed with the gift of prophecy; and several more. Then she turns to “the Gentiles,” listing over twenty extraordinary women: like “Minerva,…giver of all the learning of Athens”; “Hypatia, who taught astrology in Alexandria”; “Paula, learned in the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin languages.”

Next she turns to the argument of a contemporary theologian, Fr. Juan Diaz de Arce, on whether women should study. Sor Juana summarizes his position: “that to lecture publicly in the classroom and to preach in the pulpit are not legitimate activities for women, but that studying, writing, and teaching privately are not only allowable but most edifying and useful.” In fact, she further reasons, for men to tutor young women is a dangerous risk; so educating older women to teach the younger is highly desirable.

She then moves “to the facility in writing verse which has been so censured in me”—a facility “so innate that I am even doing violence to myself to keep this missive in prose.” After recounting how all the poetry in Scripture is celebrated, she comes to “Our Lady,” who “intoned on her sacred lips the Canticle of the Magnificat.” Her conclusion: “Now if the wrong consists in the practice of verse by a woman, since so many have practiced it in a fashion so evidently praiseworthy, what can be so wrong about my being a poet? Though I readily confess [with delightful false modesty] that I am base and vile, I am not aware that anyone has seen an unseemly ditty by me.” And “as regards what little of mine has been printed, the very decision to publish has been out of my hands.”

But now I should offer you a taste of the poetry which gained Sor Juana her contemporaneous (and lasting) fame. First, some playful verses on a theme close to her Reply—in translation from her Spanish, of course:

Silly, you men—so very adept
at wrongly faulting womankind,
not seeing you're alone to blame
for faults you plant in woman's mind.

After you've won by urgent plea
the right to tarnish her good name,
you still expect her to behave—
you, that coaxed her into shame.

And, more seriously, here’s an excerpt from her religious play, The Divine Narcissus, considered a masterpiece of the Spanish baroque genre called “auto sacramentales”: verse-plays for the feast of Corpus Christi. The Divine Narcissus stands out for its ingenious blending of classical myth with Catholic sacramental theology. In the following scene, Narcissus (Christ) is gazing into a fountain, awed by the beauty he sees reflected there—not only his own (as in the Narcissus myth) but Human Nature’s too, since she is already reflected in him. You’ll also hear echoes of The Song of Songs.

Here at last—but what greets my eyes?
What surprising beauty is this,
beside whose purest light
the whole celestial sphere turns pale?…

Heaven and earth joined hands
to form this burst of brilliance,
heaven supplying the beacon,
the meadow giving the bloom.
The sky came down entire
in eagerness to adorn it.
But no, for beauty so peerless
could never have been devised
by all the loving care
of heaven and earth combined.…

Come, my Spouse, to your Lover,
rend that clear curtain,
make your countenance seen,
let me hear your voice in my ear!

Finally, just so you can see a bit of the rhyming that’s carried through the whole poem, here’s the Spanish of this last verse:

Ven, Espose, a tu querido;
rompe esa cortina clara:
muéstrame tu hermosa cara,
suene tu vox a mi oída!

To which all I can add is:
Muchísimas gracias, Sor Juana!


Peggy Rosenthal has a PhD in English Literature. Her first published book was Words and Values, a close reading of popular language. Since then she has published widely on the spirituality of poetry, in periodicals such as America, The Christian Century, and Image, and in books that can be found here.