Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz is often considered the first feminist of the Americas for her outspoken work on women’s rights in Mexico during the 17th century. She was frequently regarded as The Tenth Muse.
Born in San Miguel Nepalta, Tepetlixpa, Juana Ramirez de Asbaje grew up during a time of Spanish expansion – in the Viceroyalty of New Spain (modern day Mexico). There is some dispute over her birth, but it’s believed to be circa November 12, 1651 (or 1648, due to a baptismal document). She was born out of wedlock to a Creole mother and Spanish father.
Juana Ramirez was revered as a child prodigy and followed the pursuit of knowledge for most of her life. She had little access to education due to her gender. Most of what she learned over her life was through self-teaching. She was sent to live with relatives in Mexico City during her adolescence – where she studied Greek logic and Nahuatl (language), in addition to teaching Latin.
Juana Ramirez’s family presented her to Viceroy Antonio Sebastian de Toldeo, the Marquis de Mancera’s court. Her reputation preceded her and in turn, the Viceroy assembled a panel of scholars to test her knowledge. The panel of around 40 tested her on various subjects, including literature, history, and mythology. She excelled at this test and impressed many.
She spent several years at court in the service of the Vicerine Leonor Carreto. However, Juana Ramirez had no intentions of marrying and wanted to focus solely on her pursuit for knowledge, saying she desired “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail my freedom to study” in 1667. She was briefly a nun in the order of the Discalced Carmelites. Sor (“sister”) Juana found them to be too strict and in 1669 she moved to the Convent of San Geronimo (also called Santa Paula of the Hieronymite) order where she was allowed more leniency in her studies. She remained at the order until her death.
Sor Juana had her own apartment at the convent which allowed her to amass a large library and collection of musical and scientific instruments. She had one of the largest private libraries of the New World. The Viceroy and Vicerine were patrons of her – they published many of her works in Spain. Although cloistered, she was the unofficial court poet in the 1680s.
She’s thought to be the last great writer of the Hispanic Baroque period and was influenced by many, including: Lope de Vega, Francisco de Quevedo, Luis de Gongora, and Pedro Calderon de la Barca. She wrote a wide range of poetry and plays including: religious, secular, moral, and satirical.
She was also feminist in many of her writings. While the people of Spain and Mexico revered her and her writings, church officials were not happy. In November of 1690, Manuel Fernandez de Santa Cruz, the bishop of Puebla, published Sor Juana’s critique of a 40-year-old sermon by Portuguese Jesuit preacher Antonio Vieira, without her permission. He published it under the pseudonym Sor Filotea with the title Carta atenagorica (Letter Worthy of Athena). He used this to encourage Sor Juana to step away from secular studies and focus on her religious ones instead.
Sor Juana chose to instead respond in 1691 with her now famous letter Respuesta a sor Filotea de la Cruz (Reply to Sister Filotea of the Cross.) Her reply was both in defense of herself and in defense of women’s rights. It is often hailed as the first feminist manifesto by scholars. She was subjected to further criticism. In 1694, she succumbed to the pressure and sold her library and collection instead of having them taken away. She donated the money to the poor. She then returned to religious studies.
Sor Juana died from the plague in Mexico City, Mexico while to tending to sick nuns on April 17, 1695. She was 44 years old. She remains a national icon in Mexico and appears on Mexican currency. Her former cloister is now a university, University of the Cloister of Sor Juana.