Women’s Empowerment in the Early Modern Period; the Writings of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

Kyrie Adele Robinson is a Master’s Student at the Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto, Ontario. Her research looks at how women use self-portraiture to tell stories of their lived experiences to create space for themselves within the world. Specifically in the writings of  Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, through her struggle for women to be educated and allowed to write and think, illustrating a portrait of a woman’s lived experience through the art of words.


Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was an early modern, seventeenth-century philosopher, poet, thinker and nun who challenged the exclusivity of education and lack of agency that women experienced. She wrote passionately in her poetry, plays and her famous La Respuesta (The Answer) against the systematic exclusion women encountered from education. Sor Juana created a space of agency within her convent, one of learning, full of books, art, musical instruments and a constant stream of people coming to discuss and argue with Sor Juana. From this library in her convent, Sor Juana corresponded with people across the globe, situating her in an international network of early modern thinkers, writers, philosophers and women fighting for their rights. For Sor Juana; “what really mattered to her was to give to the feminine sex a literary and intellectual status equal to that of men.”[1] The right to be able to think is contested in all of Sor Juana’s writings, fundamental to her struggle as a woman who chose not to marry and instead became a nun – the only opportunity a woman had to devote herself to study. Sor Juana notes in her writings how many women “who entered convents did so hoping for both protection from undesirable marriages and a measure of autonomy in a world controlled by men.”[2] Sor Juana is well aware that her world is controlled by men – either by a father, husband or leaders of the Catholic church. Only by joining a convent could she have “the unhindered quietude required by my studious intent.”[3] Only in a convent, which was still controlled by men at the highest level, could she find the space and solitude she required to study and learn, all of which were privileges that educated men enjoyed.

Her struggle to have the freedom to think and to contemplate the divine, led her to read and correspond with many thinkers and writers, and caused her to amass an enormous library within the convent. Sor Juana accessed the only form of agency available to women at this time, and fought to make the desire for learning and education not be seen as something inappropriate for women to aspire towards.

La Respuesta, is Sor Juana’s written response to the church and to the Bishop of Puebla, who wished to silence her and stop her studies, for her criticisms of certain sermons. In this famous text, Sor Juana singles out and cites many women and their fame in history due to their scholarly intelligence. She firmly positions herself on a global stage of women fighting for rights and to have the agency to question and think critically. Sor Juana uses more than twenty-five women from secular and mythological backgrounds, as evidence of a woman’s natural inclination and right to think and write. Here, Sor Juana truly shows the breadth of her intellect, and widespread knowledge of historical women. These were women who pushed against the boundaries of what they had been told they could and could not do — just as Sor Juana herself was pushing against the boundaries placed against her. Sor Juana, like many of the women she cites “Was to [constantly] assert herself and demand the same rights that were conceded to enlightened men.”[4] Never would Sor Juana be satisfied, until she and all other women could enjoy the same rights and privileges that educated men enjoyed.

Sor Juana “effectively toppled many of the walls in which she was materially enclosed and positioned herself within the dynamic world of early modern European culture.”[5] Interestingly, she toppled walls that were put up to stop women from educating themselves, partially by enclosing herself inside the physical walls of the convent. She limited her physical mobility so that she might have the best ability to study and learn — quite a choice to make for a young brilliant woman.

Sor Juana was considered a woman of letters from her extensive connections throughout Europe. She was in touch through letters with many other thinkers in Europe, both men and women, of her time. Many of the women she mentioned in La Respuesta she would have been in contact with and read their work. She would have read both female and male thinkers in books, and from her correspondence in her unquenchable thirst for knowledge. In her study of European thinkers, Sor Juana constantly “offered, [and] who continues to offer a series of suggested alternatives to the male-dominated membership and attitudes of the accepted canon”[6] She fought to expand the accepted canon with her own work and the work of other learned women, “her writing is an enactment and an emblem of her resistance.”[7]

Sor Juana was continually persecuted by the Church and finally forced to give up her library and all writing and correspondence, and soon afterwards she died. This relentless persecution was about her insistence on women’s right to education.

[1] Georgina Sabat-Rivers, “A Feminist Rereading of Sor Juana’s Dream.” In Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999), 145.

[2] Juana Inés de la Cruz. The Divine Narcissus and El Divino Narciso. Ed. by Domeier Renée. Trans. by Patricia A. Peters. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), xiii.

[3] Juana Inés de la Cruz. The Answer: Including a Selection of Poems and La Respuesta. Ed. And trans. by Arenal, Electa, and Powell, Amanda (New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1994), 5, paragraph 6.

[4] Sabat-Rivers, “A Feminist Rereading of Sor Juana’s Dream.” In Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz, 145.

[5] Stephanie Merrim. Early Modern Women’s Writing and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. 1st ed. (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1999), xii.

[6] Sabat-Rivers, “A Feminist Rereading of Sor Juana’s Dream.” In Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz, 145.

[7] Cruz, The Answer: Including a Selection of Poems and La Respuesta, 18. And Euginia C DeLamotte, Natania Meeker, and Jean F. O’Barr. Women Imagine Change: A Global Anthology of Women’s Resistance from 600 B.C.E. to Present,  205.


Bibliography

Arenal, Electa, and Amanda Powell. “A Life without and Within: Juana Ramirez/Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz (1648/51-1695).” Women’s Studies Quarterly 21, no. 1-2 (1993): 67.

Bokser, Julie A. “Sor Juana’s Divine Narcissus: A New World Rhetoric of Listening.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 40, no. 3 (2010): 224-46.

Cortés‐Vélez, Dinorah. “Faith and Dissidence in Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz.” Edited by K Seigneurie, A Companion to World Literature, Wiley Online Library , 31 Oct. 2019.

Cruz, Juana Inés de la. “First Dream”,in The Neglected Canon: Nine Women Philosophers, First to the Twentieth Century. Dordrecht; Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1999.

Cruz, Juana Inés de la. The Answer: Including a Selection of Poems = La Respuesta. Edited and translated by Arenal, Electa, and Powell, Amanda New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1994.

Cruz Juana Inés de la. The Divine Narcissus = El Divino Narciso. Edited by Domeier Renée. Translated by Patricia A. Peters 1st ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.

DeLamotte, Eugenia C., Meeker, Natania, and O’Barr, Jean F. Women Imagine Change: A Global Anthology of Women’s Resistance from 600 B.C.E. to Present. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Dykeman, Therese Boos. The Neglected Canon: Nine Women Philosophers, First to the Twentieth Century. Dordrecht; Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1999.

Finley, Sarah, and ProQuest. Hearing Voices: Aurality and New Spanish Sound Culture in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019.            

Galeano, Eduardo. “Sor Juana.” Hispamérica 10.29 (1981): 93-98. Web.

Glantz, Margo. “Octavio Paz and Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz’s Posthumous Fame.” Pacific Coast Philology 28, no. 2 (1993): 129-37.

Kirk Rappaport, Pamela. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Religion, Art, and Feminism. New York: Continuum, 1998.

Manrique, Jaime, and Larkin, Joan. Sor Juana’s Love Poems. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press.

Mendoza, Breny. “Juxtaposing Lives: Mary Wollstonecraft and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 35, no. 3/4 (2007): 287-91.

Merrim, Stephanie. Early Modern Women’s Writing and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. 1st ed. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1999.

Merrim, Stephanie. Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999.

Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana, Or, The Traps of Faith. Cambridge, Mass.: Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, 1988.

Peden, Margaret Sayers. A Woman of Genius: The Intellectual Autobiography of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. 2nd ed. Salisbury, Conn.: Lime Rock Press, 1987.

Powell, Lisa D. “Sor Juana’s Critique of Theological Arrogance.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 27, no. 2 (2011): 11-30.

Prendergast, Ryan. “Constructing an Icon: The Self-Referentiality and Framing of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 7, no. 2 (2007): 28-56.

Sabat-Rivers, Georgina. “A Feminist Rereading of Sor Juana’s Dream.” In Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999.

Twinam, Ann. “The Tenth Muse: The Life of Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz.” Online lecture. 2017.

Urban, Ivelisse. “Ontology of the Metaphor in the Divine Narcissus by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.” Romance Notes 49, no. 3 (2009): 257-65.

Waithe, Mary Ellen, “From Canon Fodder to Canon-Formation: How Do We Get There from Here?”, The Monist 98, no. 1, (January 2015): 21–33.

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