Sor Juana’s Appeal to Feminist Scholarship

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz is often regarded as having written the first feminist manifesto and as the first feminist of the Americas. So, what about her work and life is appealing to feminist scholarship? A lot, really! This is one of the topics discussed in Rachel O’Donnell’s essay “Gender, Culture, and Knowledge in New Spain: Sor Juana’s “To the Gentleman in Peru”” published in Women’s Studies.

According to O’Donnell: “Sor Juana articulates her belief that reason has no gender, in addition to defending her inclination toward learning. She includes in her poems long lists of famous female writers, writes of her admiration for St. Catherine of Alexandra, a learned martyr, and praises the learning of St. Teresa: “For what were they all but learned women, who were considered, celebrated, and indeed venerated as such in Antiquity?” (Arenal and Powell 1994, 79). She also defends her right to secular learning, writes that intelligence is not the privilege of men, and advocates the universal education of women.”

Another reason Cruz is important to feminist scholarship is due to the idea that she may have been a lesbian. It is widely known that she was very close to the Vicereine, although there is no evidence of a relationship, just speculation.

O’Donnell also discusses how Octavio Paz, Cruz’s biographer, suggested that Cruz knew that being a female was a barrier to her education from a young age, referencing how she asked her mother as a child to dress her up as a boy so she could go to school. Cruz was aware of the disparity between genders, perhaps that why she was able to circumvent many of the obstacles other women faced like marriages at a young age.

  • O’Donnell, Rachel. “Gender, Culture, and Knowledge in New Spain: Sor Juana’s ‘To the Gentleman in Peru.’” Women’s Studies, vol. 44, no. 8, Dec. 2015, pp. 1114–1129

First Feminists? Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz and Mary Wollstonecraft

In her article, “Juxtaposing Lives: Mary Wollstonecraft And Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz”, Breny Mendoza discusses parallels between Mary Wollstonecraft and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, including how both women contributed to early feminism. Both women have often been regarded as the first feminist of modern times, in their own rights, but Wollstonecraft has received larger scholarship and celebration, I’ll briefly discuss why I believe this is.

To begin with, Wollstonecraft was a mid-to-late 18th century writer, whereas Cruz was a 17th century scholar, nun, and writer. Wollstonecraft had some privilege over Cruz. Although both lived in times of feminine oppression and fought against that, Wollstonecraft was a white English woman, and Cruz was a Spanish nun who faced a lot of scrutiny from the Church.

I think language plays a role to some degree. Publications written in English, like Wollstonecraft’s, would have reached a larger circulation in a shorter time than Cruz’s works which began publication in Spain. Because Cruz’s texts needed to be translated, that’s one barrier she faced. Another barrier Cruz faced was her circumstances: having to join a nunnery to avoid being forced into marriage, having the watchful eyes of the Church and the immense pressure from them, being forced to sell her library. A lot of her works have been lost, whether temporarily or permanently due to her circumstances and the problems she faced.

Both Wollstonecraft and Cruz faced oppression and fought for women’s rights, but they did so with different barriers and those factors undoubtedly contribute to how widely each one is studied and known.

  • Mendoza, B. (2007). “Juxtaposing Lives: Mary Wollstonecraft And Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz .” Women’s Studies Quarterly, 35(3), [287-291

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz’s works still discovered hundreds of years after her death

Sor Juana’s works went through publishing thanks to her friendship with the Viceroy and Vicerine who published her works in Spain. However, many of the 17th c. nun’s works have been lost, while some just haven’t been rediscovered yet! In 1980, her letter the Carta de Monterrey (1682) was discovered. In this letter, she fired her confessor because of his remarks and concerns about the fame she was gaining. A previous letter found two decades earlier in the 1960s, Carta de Serafina de Cristo, is widely accepted as being written by her in 1691.

Carla Fumagalli makes an important note that, “[i]n principle, the signature that certifies the authenticity of the texts that can be integrated into the work of an author and giving them the character of truth is a particularly frequent problem when it comes to the Mexican nun. Thus, we can not forget the discussions about some found papers and the difficulties of securing their authorship.” That being said, several more discoveries where made in the 1990s. The ending to a play attributed to Sor Juana, La segunda Celestina, along with a couple essays that underwent authentication efforts before they were released to the public in 1995.

Because Sor Juana sold her library close to the end of her life due to pressure from the church, there may be more of her works floating around. Here’s hoping.

A Biography on Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

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.