Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Can Women Ever Achieve Equal Status?

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Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Can Women Ever Achieve Equal Status?

A portrait of Juana during her youth in 1666, which states she was 15 at the time, when she first entered the viceregal court
A portrait of Juana during her youth in 1666, which states she was 15 at the time, when she first entered the viceregal court. Credit Wikipedia.
In March of every year, we celebrate National Women’s History Month. After reading the background information on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th baroque lyricist who wrote and left a substantial body of work, I cannot help but ask the question, “can women ever achieve equal status to men?” because the struggle has been going on for a long time. Back in the late 17th century, Sor Juana used her writing to question women’s unequal status and their subordinate role to men. But more than that, she didn’t just speak about women’s issues, she also gave voice to indigenous peoples and slaves.

“Her corpus includes sixty-five sonnets, sixty-two romances, a large number of poems in other forms, two comedies, three autos sacramentales (allegorical dramas), sixteen sets of villancicos (poems sung on religious holidays), one sarao (a celebratory song accompanied by a dance), and two farces.” Her work can be grouped as morality plays, Christmas carols, allegorical essays, worldly three-act comedies, and love lyrics. And her work gives us a glimpse into what life was like in Mexico (New Spain) in the 17th century.

Name: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Birth Date: November 12, 1651 (1648) –  April 17, 1695
Job Functions: Baroque Lyricist and Nun

By the age of three, Sor Juana was able to read. As she grew older, she asked her mother to dress her like a boy so that she could get an education at a university in Mexico City because females were not allowed to study at universities. Sor Juana had a passion for the intellectual life. When she was only eight years old, she wrote a Eucharistic drama. She got the opportunity to live with relatives in Mexico City, where she evolved as a writer, getting the attention of the viceroy when she was 13, and became a maid-in-waiting for the vicereine.

Interestingly enough, the Viceroy didn’t simply choose Sor Juana because she appeared to be smart. He arranged for 40 of the best scholars to test her intellectual capacity, each in their own specialty. She proved to be proficient in moral and dogmatic theology, medicine, canon law, astronomy, advanced mathematics, and music.

The three years Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz spent in the viceregal court allowed her intellectual capacity to blossom and explode because she got the opportunity to practice her craft. She wrote poems, ballads, songs, carols and poems on religious themes for religious and viceregal holidays. In 1683 after she had left the court, her play, The House of Trials, was performed for the Viceroys. And Divine Narcissus, written in 1688, was performed in Madrid in 1689.

Image credit: Wikipedia - Statue of Sor Juana in Parque del Oeste, Madrid, Spain
Image credit: Wikipedia – Statue of Sor Juana in Parque del Oeste, Madrid, Spain

After she left the Viceroy in 1667, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz entered into the ascetic, cloistered Roman Catholic order of Discalced Carmelites, which she left after three months because they were too strict. Sor Juana entered the convent because it was the only place that women could enjoy leisure time and be able to pursue scholarly and literary ambitions. Two years after leaving the Discalced Carmelites, she joined the order of the Hieronymites. In her personal space at the convent, she transformed it into a creative one with musical and mathematical instruments as well as an extensive personal library. Many sources record that Sor Juana had 4,000 books, but this was back in the late 17th century, where and how could she have acquired so many books?

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz continued to write about what some would consider to be secular topics, which angered some of the bishops. In 1690, the Bishop of Puebla, posing as Sor Filotea de la Cruz, published a personal document that Sor Juana wrote, reproaching her for her secular study. She was forced to respond, which she did in “Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz” (1691). According to Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion, Sor Juana “defends her desire for knowledge and her course in life, arguing for the right of women to an education and the right of the individual to pursue a broad spectrum of knowledge.”

But to me, what is most troubling, is the way that the Bishop of Puebla tricked Sor Juana. “In 1690, Bishop Santa Cruz asked Sor Juana to put in writing some critical thoughts she had expressed to him regarding a sermon by the famous Portuguese Jesuit António Vieira (1608–1697), of whom the archbishop happened to be particularly fond. Acting ostensibly without her permission, Santa Cruz then published the essay under the fawning title Carta atenagórica (A Letter Worthy of the Wisdom of Athena), preceded by a prologue which he supplied himself under the pseudonym “Sor Filotea de la Cruz.” In a peculiar twist, although the fictitious Sor Filotea opened her remarks with praise for the poet nun, she went on to parrot Aguiar y Seijas and Núñez de Miranda by admonishing Sor Juana not to waste her time with vain pursuits, such as secular learning.” (Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia)

Sor Juana’s Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz (The Answer / La Respuesta (Expanded Edition): Including Sor Filotea’s Letter and New Selected Poems (English and Spanish Edition)) is an autobiographical manifesto, in which she deals with issues affecting women such as freedom of expression and the right to have an education, and she remarks that she has no intention of abandoning her literary and intellectual pursuits, but two years later, in 1693, she renews her vows and disposes of her books and other possessions. Sor Juana used her talent to speak against injustices, and Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz  supported her stance against injustices, but she ended up being silenced. I ask the question, “Can Women Ever Achieve Equal Status?” And my response is yes, we have to! Although Sor Juana decided to be silent, her silence was deafening, and her work lives on.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz who died in 1695 was inspired by strong women in the Bible – Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Queen Esther, Rebecca, Deborah and Judith. You can read a translation of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s most famous poem First Dream. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. Liked this post? Share it and subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!

Author Bio: Avil Beckford, an expert interviewer, entrepreneur and published author is passionate about books and professional development, and that’s why she founded The Invisible Mentor and the Virtual Literary World Tour to give you your ideal mentors virtually in the palm of your hands by offering book reviews and book summaries, biographies of wise people and interviews of successful people.

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Source: Works Cited/Referenced

Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture
Encyclopedia of Religion
Encyclopedia of World Biography
Feminism in Literature – A Gale Critical Companion
Reference Guide to World Literature
Women in World History – A Biographical Encyclopedia