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Women in Christianity: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Sor Juana by Miguel Cabrera
Miguel Cabrera, Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, c. 1750 | via Wikipedia | public domain

Ungrateful, she who does not love you,

yet she who does you judge unchaste.

You men are such a foolish breed,

appraising with a faulty rule,

the first you charge with being cruel,

the second, easy, you decree.

These lines could have been written today, especially in the aftermath of the recent violent attack of a Canadian man furious over “ungrateful” women who wouldn’t date him. But they were written by a Mexican nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, in the late seventeenth century.

Sor Juana is a well-known figure in Mexico, but I hadn’t even heard of her until a colleague recommended that we add her to the syllabus in the humanities course that I used to teach. She certainly deserves wider recognition in the English-speaking world, both for her literary works and for her engagement in theology.

Sor Juana was a child prodigy who learned to read at the age of 3 and, at 12, begged her mother to allow her to dress as a boy and travel to Mexico City to study (her mother refused). She did end up in Mexico City, however, as a lady-in-waiting in a noble Spanish family. There, she continued her education and quickly gained admiration for her intelligence. Although she received several marriage offers, she chose instead to join a convent.

Becoming a nun meant that Sor Juana could pursue her studies without the obligations of running a household or the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth. In the seventeenth century, a convent was the best option for a woman who wanted to engage in academic and intellectual pursuits.

And yet entering holy orders brought Sor Juana a whole new set of challenges: those who did not believe that women should engage in theological study.

(As much as I wish this had changed, in just the last six months John Piper has sparked controversy by claiming that women should not teach seminary and Beth Moore has recounted the hostility she faced during her brief stint in seminary. Much of the same resistance to women in theology remains today.)

This is where Sor Juana becomes an important figure in Christian history, and not just a brilliant young woman whose contributions to Spanish Golden Age literature earned her the title “The Tenth Muse.”

In 1690, Sor Juana waded into a decades-long theological debate about divine acts of love towards humanity. At the request of a bishop, Sor Juana wrote down her critique of a particular Spanish theologian; this text, the Athenagoric Letter, circulated privately for a while, but soon the bishop published the essay without Sor Juana’s knowledge or consent.

A brief side note on publishing while female is necessary to understand the reaction that ensued: in the seventeenth century, notions of decorum and propriety barred women from engaging in the public sphere. These ideas excluded women from politics and also made women’s participation in any sort of public debate difficult — and publication was viewed as participation in public debates. Although Sor Juana did not choose to publish her essay, its publication meant that she nevertheless faced public censure as a woman who inappropriately and publicly critiqued a man.

The harshest criticism, lambasting Sor Juana for even entering the theological conversation, was written by the same bishop who published the Athenagoric Letter. He wrote under a female pseudonym, Sor Filotea de la Cruz, and urged Sor Juana in the strongest terms to give up her academic studies and instead devote herself to prayer — the proper work of a nun.

Sor Juana wrote a densely argued but passionate response to “Sor Filotea” (Sor Juana certainly knew the real identity of the author, although she plays along with the pseudonym). In her response, she argues cogently for educating women, even in theology, and for allowing them to write and teach. At one point, she asks the crucial question: “My reason, such as it is, is it not as unfettered as his [the theologian who she argued against], as both issue from the same source?” Although Sor Juana writes deferentially, she is keenly aware that many of her critics would, indeed, see her as less capable of reason than a man.

But in her argument, she marshals support for educating women from a wide variety of authorities while building a rhetorical case that knowledge and love of God is best served by the wide-ranging knowledge gained through academic study. Sor Juana argues that understanding history, for example, helps everyone — including women — to better understand the bible.

Sadly, however, Sor Juana’s response did not alleviate the mounting pressure to step away from public life and intellectual pursuits. Around 1693, she seems to have stopped writing and to have sold or given away her impressively large library, although it is unclear how willingly she did so. She spent the last years of her life in prayer and service, finally dying of the plague while caring for other sick nuns.

Sor Juana’s life reminds us that, despite the many obstacles thrown in their path by patriarchy, women still know themselves to be created with the same reason as a man and still desire to turn this reason towards understanding the world and understanding God. But her death demonstrates that patriarchy can finally wear down even the most brilliant and passionate women.

Women in the western world today undoubtedly face fewer obstacles than Sor Juana. But the church in particular should take sober note of her story and work to encourage the gifts of all people, including women.