A Woman to Know: Juana Ines de la Cruz

You foolish men who lay the guilt on women, not realizing you're the cause of the very thing you blame. — Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

When Juana was a child in rural 16th century Mexico, she begged her parents for books. They eventually sent her to school in Mexico City, where she wowed Enlightenment scholars with her natural gifts for poetry, composition and theological debate. Eventually, faced with a life in the royal court or a life amongst her beloved books, she committed herself to the Church -- "[I want] to have no fixed occupation which might curtail my freedom to study," she declared.

As a nun writing plays and poetry in Mexico City's "Golden Age," Juana's prolific ouevre reached beyond the New World and into the Old. Protected by both her convent and her popularity, Juana felt free to explore the fledgling fields of women's rights, dream psychology and rational faith. Today she is honored as the "Tenth Muse" of Spanish literature and the first published feminist of North America. Scholars such as Octavio Paz have called her "our universal poet."

Her most beloved poem, "El primer sueno," follows the journey of a single soul, as it leaves the body of a sleeping woman to roam libraries, universities and cities in pursuit of higher knowledge. The 975 lines end with a realization that the soul belongs to Juana herself, forever the child begging her parents for books.

In 1690, the Viceroy who had patronized Juana's work left Mexico City. The new regime criticized her opinions and ambition, particularly outraged over a series of plays she wrote heralding the courage of indigenous heroines. Juana would spend the remainder of her days writing secretly in the convent, tending to sick nurses and minimizing her interactions with the outside world. One of her poems, "You Foolish Men," summarizes her distress: "You always are so foolish/your censure is unfair."

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** Thank you to Sarah Anne Perry for recommending Juana as a woman to know! **

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