Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was an exceptional seventeenth-century nun who set precedents for feminism long before the term or concept existed. Her "Respuesta" is a maverick work outlining the logical sense of women’s education more than 200 years before Woolf’s "A Room of One’s Own." Her poetry, meanwhile, states in bold language the potency of the feminine in both love and religion.
Juana Inés Ramirez was born out of wedlock to Isabel Ramirez and Manuel de Asbaje in a small village in Mexico, New Spain. Manuel soon abandoned the family, so mother and child spent a great deal of time with Juana’s grandfather, Pedro Ramirez. It was in Pedro’s book-filled house that Juana learned to read. (Girls of her time were rarely, if ever, formally educated.) The door to learning then burst open -- the young prodigy would embark upon a life shaped and shaken by intellectual inquiry. She quickly gained renown in society and became a lady-in-waiting in the court of the Spanish viceroy. Yet she soon left the court for the nunnery; practically speaking, this was the best way for an illegitimately born woman to secure the time and resources for scholarship.
But Sor Juana did not shut herself away in an ascetic cell. She started out as a novice in the Carmelite order, but the order's predilection for little sleep and self-flagellation repelled her after a few months. Eventually she found a sect that was more her speed as a lady of letters and a former courtier: the order of San Jerónimo gave her an entire suite of her own, complete with bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, library, and servant. Her library -- which held Mexico’s largest book collection -- developed into a meeting-place for the intellectual elite. Those who frequented the salon included future viceroy Marquis de La Laguna and the Countess de Pareda, known to her intimates as Maria Luisa.
Maria Luisa and Sor Juana embarked on a passionate friendship that may have crossed the boundaries of the propriety of the day. In any case, it produced decidedly amorous poetry. Sor Juana wrote, "That you're a woman far away is no hindrance to my love: for the soul, as you well know, distance and sex don't count." Whether she was a lesbian by modern-day standards is unclear, and probably irrelevant. What is clear is that her poetry expresses a spiritual solidarity with women, a sublime affinity that transcends sex. That this solidarity excluded men is apparent in her anti-male work -- in "You Men," the accused are a sniveling bunch "adept at wrongly faulting womankind."
However, it was not the Sapphic content of her verses that upset Sor Juana's contemporaries. Rather, she drew fire after a private letter criticizing a member of the clergy was published without her permission. When the Archbishop of Mexico tried to silence her, she wrote a defense entitled "La Respuesta." This letter is her defining work -- and the instrument of her downfall. Sor Juana turned around the logic used by the Church to justify her oppression and subverted it into a magnificent defense for women's intellectual rights and education. Though the letter’s tone is superficially humble, Sor Juana forcefully insists that women have a natural right to the mind. Her use of biblical evidence to support her call for strong, educated women is downright clever -- and has earned her recognition for her rhetorical skills. Naturally, "La Respuesta" brought indignation from the Church and unwanted attention from the Inquisition. To save herself, Sor Juana was forced to stop writing and to give up her books. She died a nun’s death in 1695, succumbing to illness while caring for the poor during an epidemic.