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International Women's Month Highlight: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

The first published feminist writer in the Americas was a nun from the 17th century. This week, we continue our International Women's Month series with a look into the remarkable life of poet, philosopher and thinker Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Born around 1650 in New Spain, what is now Mexico, Juana Ramírez had a thirst for knowledge from a very young age. The illegitimate daughter of a Spanish father are Creole mother, she was raised by her maternal grandfather who stoked her voracious reading habit.

Being a young woman in the 17th-Century Spanish colonies, she would not have had access to a formal education. She nonetheless managed to teach herself and composed her first poem at 8 years old. By her teenage years she was well versed in Greek, Latin, science, logic and literature.

At age 16, she was sent to Mexico City where her intellect gained the attention of the vice-royal court. In the service of the viceroy's wife, she developed a reputation as a thinker and philosopher.

When she was 17, the viceroy assembled a panel of scholars to test her knowledge, and the vast intellect she displayed would gain her notoriety throughout Mexico.

Her intelligence and beauty brought her many suitors, but given what she called a “total disinclination to marriage” and her wish “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail my freedom to study,” she opted to join a convent at age 19 to pursue the life of a scholar in a more socially acceptable environment.

Sor -- Spanish for "Sister" -- Juana took up the cloth at the Convent of the Discalced Carmelites of St. Joseph, where she would remain for only a few months. In 1669 she entered the more lenient Convent of the Order of St. Jérôme, where she would remain until her death.

Convent life afforded Sor Juana her own apartment and freedom to study, write and teach. The patronage of the viceroy of New Spain added to her exceptional academic freedom. Though she was confined to the walls of a convent, her patrons had her works published in Spain, and she became the unofficial court poet in the 1680's. 

Sor Juana also was an outspoken feminist and celebrated women as the seat of reason, and in her famous poem “Hombres Necios” -- “Foolish Men” -- she accused men of having the same irrational behavior they criticized in women.

In one passage, she explained why she cut off her hair, saying:

"It turned out that the hair grew quickly and I learned slowly. As a result, I cut off the hair in punishment for my head’s ignorance, for it didn’t seem right to me that a head so naked of knowledge should be dressed up with hair, for knowledge is a more desirable adornment.”

Her radical views unsurprisingly drew the condemnation of the church. In the 1680s she broke with her Jesuit confessor, Antonio Núñez de Miranda, because he publicly maligned her. She also around this time began to lose political immunity when the vice-royal family left the New World for Spain in 1688.

In November 1690, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, bishop of Puebla, published, without Sor Juana's permission, her critique of a sermon from a well-known Jesuit preacher. The bishop, under the pseudonym "Sor Filotea," admonished Sor Juana for the lack of religious content in her poems.

Sor Juana responded to the bishop in 1691 with a letter now hailed as the first feminist manifesto. In "Respuesta a Sor Filotea" -- “Reply to Sister Filotea of the Cross" -- she defended, among other things, a woman's right to education, arguing her studies of science and the humanities were necessary to understanding theology.

Her fervent reply, however, gained further criticism from the church. By 1694 she succumbed to pressures from her superiors, sold her library, as well as her musical and scientific instruments, and in penitence gave up all studies and writing.

A plague hit her convent in 1695, and Sor Juana, after tending to several of the sisters, died from the illness at age 44.

Sor Juana's life and work endures into the 21st century and she is widely regarded as a Mexican national icon as the first feminist author of the New World. 

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