Juana Inés de la Cruz was a nun with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a firm belief in womens’ right to education. She is regarded by many as the first published feminist in the New World.
Born near Mexico City in 1651 to unmarried parents, Juana, like most girls of her time, had very little access to education as a child. But this didn’t stop her; she developed a desire to learn from an early age and could be found hiding in the chapel of the hacienda where she lived, devouring her grandfather’s books.
It is said that by the age of 3 she could read and write in Latin, by 8 she was composing her own poetry and by the time she was a teenager she was able to understand the Aztec language Nahuatl and had begun to teach Latin to others.
When she was sent to Mexico City to live with her aunt, she was eager to learn more and pleaded with her family to let her disguise herself as a man so she could attend the university and receive a formal education (which wasn’t available to her as a woman.) Her family didn’t like the idea, so Juana had to be content with continuing to teach herself in secret however she could. She wrote of this time:
“…It came to my attention that in Mexico City there were Schools, and a University, in which one studied the sciences. The moment I heard this, I began to plague my mother with insistent and importunate pleas: she should dress me in boy’s clothing and send me to Mexico City to live with relatives, to study and be tutored at the University.”
Juana was strict with herself – setting herself challenges to learn a certain amount by a certain time – and measuring this by cutting off her hair and seeing how much she could learn by the time it reached a certain length! She commented,
“…there seemed to me no cause for a head to be adorned with hair and naked of learning…”
There wasn’t an area that didn’t interest her and she found she had a natural ability for all manner of subjects including science, maths, philosophy, music, classics and more!
Word soon began to spread about this young, female genius and she began to attract the attention of the rich and famous. Juana became a lady in waiting at the court of a Viceroy, who would invite scholars and philosophers from across the country to come and quiz her. During this time she even met and discussed ideas with Issac Newton. As a young, beautiful, intelligent woman she received several proposals of marriage, but she was having none of it! All she cared about was being able to learn; to read and to write.
So she decided to become a nun, a life which would allow her more freedom to do exactly that. She later wrote of her wish “to have no obligatory occupation that would inhibit the freedom of her studies, nor the sounds of a community that would intrude upon the peaceful silence of [her] books.” The first monastery she joined she found too strict, but she soon settled into life at the St Jeronimo monastery where she had her own room and the opportunity to read, write poems, plays & music to her hearts content.
She loved books and collected over 4000, creating a huge library of her own. She developed a close relationship with the Countess de Pareda, the wife of a Viceroy who had helped to get much of her work published. Some historians have speculated at the nature of their relationship due to the love poems and letters which Juana wrote for the Countess. In one poen she wrote “That you’re a woman far away is no hindrance to my love: for the soul, as you well know, distance and sex don’t count.”
Much of Juana’s work was feminist in tone, cleverly written to make her point. Her plays always featured strong female characters which was very unusual for the time. One of her most famous poems was called Foolish Men or You Men. It criticised men for their double standards and their unfair condemnation of women – when reading the English translation it’s words still ring true today:
“…Whether you’re favored or disdained,
nothing can leave you satisfied.
You whimper if you’re turned away,
you sneer if you’ve been gratified.
With you, no woman can hope to score;
whichever way, she’s bound to lose;
spurning you, she’s ungrateful—
succumbing, you call her lewd…”
Despite Juana’s growing popularity amongst many, there were some who didn’t approve of her works. A piece she had written criticising a sermon was published without her knowledge by a bishop who went on to write a disdainful attack suggesting she stick to religious work and leave scholarly pursuits to the men, published under the pseudonym of a Sister Philotea.
Well, Juana wasn’t having that! She wrote a response which has become one of her most famous pieces of writing, Respuestra a Sor Filotea (A Reply to Sister Philotea.) In it she absolutely took apart the argument against her, using the biblical, Classical and contemporary examples to argue in favour of women’s right to education. She argued that her intellect and love of knowledge was a gift from God, and so she is duty bound to use them. She wittily quoted an older poet saying, “One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper.”
Sadly, but not surprisingly, the church didn’t take kindly to her rebuttle. They insisted all her beloved books be sold and she was banned from publishing any further work.
Juana died when she was only 46 during an epidemic which affected her monastery. Although the end of her life was spent without the books and writing she loved so much, she had not been forgotten. She is remembered across Mexico today, even appearing on their 200 peso note! The town where she was born is named after her, as is the convent she lived in and her life has inspired books & films.
Find out more…
Read Juana’s works and English translations here.