In this post, I wanted to write about a very little known feminist that today stands as a national icon of Mexican identity. Her image even appears on Mexican currency. In the late 20th century, feminist discovered her with the rise of feminism and women’s writing. She officially became credited as the first published feminist of the New World. Who is this woman, you may ask. She was a 17th century nun, poet, and scholar. Her name is Sor Juana de la Cruz.
Cruz was born in 1648 in San Miguel Nepantla, Mexico, near Mexico City. She was officially registered as “a daughter of the Church” because her parents were unmarried. At the age of three, she followed an older sister to school and convinced a teacher to show her how to read. Juana taught herself all she could by reading her grandfather’s library and soon mastered logic, Latin and the Aztec language Nahualt. She asked to be able to disguise herself as a man so that she could go to university, but was not allowed to and continued to tutor herself instead. As a commitment to her education, Juana would cut off her hair every time she made a mistake in her studies. She felt that hair should not cover a head so bare of knowledge.
In her mid-teens, Juana was sent to live with her aunt in Mexico City. By then, rumors of her intellect had spread to the capital and she was presented at the court of a new viceregal couple, Antonio Sebastian de Toledo (the Marquis de Mancera) and Leonor Carreto. They were so impressed with Juana that they invited theologians, jurists, philosophers, and scholars to meet with her and conduct a question-and-answer test of her intellect. Juana surprised everyone with her impressive performance against the scholars and Leonor accepted Juana as a maid-in-waiting in her court. During her time in court, Juana was a bit of an intellectual celebrity and began to write poetry, often for celebratory occasions. While there, she received many marriage proposals that she turned down. Instead, she became a nun at the age of 20 because she felt that this would allow her to continue her studies.
Sor Juana’s enduring importance and literary success are partly attributable to her mastery of the full range of poetic forms and themes of the Spanish Golden Age, and her writings display inventiveness, wit and a wide range of knowledge. Juana employed all of the poetic models of her day, including sonnets and romances, and she drew on wide-ranging—secular and nonsecular—sources. Unlimited by genre, she also wrote dramatic, comedic and scholarly works—especially unusual for a nun.
Sor Juana’s most important plays include brave and clever women, and her famous poem, “Hombres necios” (“Foolish Men”), accuses men of behaving illogically by criticizing women. Her most significant poem, “Primero sueño” (“First Dream”), published in 1692, is at once personal and universal, recounting the soul’s quest for knowledge.
With Sor Juana’s growing renown, however, came disapproval from the church: In November 1690, the bishop of Puebla published (under the pseudonym of a nun) without her consent Sor Juana’s critique of a 40-year-old sermon by a Portuguese Jesuit preacher, and admonished Sor Juana to focus on religious studies instead of secular studies.
Sor Juana responded with stunning self-defense. 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,” justifying her study of secular topics as necessary to understanding theology.
In his 1988 book Sor Juana: On the traps of faith Nobel Prize-winning author Octavio Paz rediscovered and conceptualized Sor Juana’s texts for a new generation, since they had been mostly forgotten. Paz praised Sor Juana’s poetry and writings and even declared her a “universal poet.” In 1990, a powerful dramatic film was made about Sor Juana’s life, “I the worst of all” which takes its title from an apology Sor Juana was forced to write to the Chuch. Sor Juana is now featured on Mexico’s 200 peso note and the former site of the Convent of the Order of St. Jerome, Sor Juana’s convent, is now the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana.