Women in World History
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Documenting Political Women In World History

Sample from
"La Respuesta"
Mexico, 1691

Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz

Sor (Sister) Juana is considered one of the greatest intellectuals of her time and, some say, the greatest female poet that Mexico has ever produced. A child prodigy, at the age of eight, Juana was sent from the rural village of her birth, San Miguel de Npantla, to Mexico City to live with her aunt and uncle. When she was thirteen, the Viceroy (governor of New Spain) and his wife heard about the learned young woman and brought Sor Juana to live with them at the palace.
At court, Juana's intellectual abilities became so well known that when she was fifteen, forty university professors gave her a comprehensive oral examination. She performed so brilliantly, that after this trial by the professors Juana became something of a celebrity. Considered a “radiant beauty,” she was urged to marry. But without money for a respectable dowry, Juana could not hope to make a good marriage. She chose instead to enter a convent, the one proper alternative to marriage for girls of her class. At age seventeen, she became Sor Juana Inéz de La Cruz.

The convent Sor Juana joined was very active. She was allowed time to meet with her intellectual friends, write, and have books. In time, her library contained 4,000 volumes, the largest collection in Mexico of her day. By her late thirties, Sor Juana had published three volumes of poetry and was celebrated as a great poet. She had become the most important figure in her convent.

In 1690 Sor Juana wrote some critical comments about a sermon written forty years earlier by a famed Portuguese Jesuit, Father Antonio Vieira. Her criticisms were published without her permission. Immediately her ideas were themselves criticized by some who felt it improper and an act of insolence for a nun to analyze the writings of an important church figure. Instead of spending her life in prayer and denial, they complained, Sor Juana had brought attention to herself by studying subjects and engaging in intellectual pursuits more appropriate for a man.

The growing controversy about Sor Juana came to the notice of the Bishop of Puebla, who was an old friend. In a public letter to her, he urged Sor Juana to give up her writing. He suggested that in order to avoid damnation, Sor Juana should cease her concern with secular subjects and focus more on those suited to a nun. “What a pity it is that such a great mind should lower itself to the mean and vile works of the earth,” he wrote.

The bishop’s words hurt Sor Juana deeply. After three months, she wrote a thirty-six page reply to the bishop. Her Respuesta (reply) is a moving letter in which Sor Juana reveals the turning points in her life that led to her devotion to learning. Many consider it to be the first writing in America which defends the right of a woman to pursue a scholarly life and become an intellectual.

Excerpts from La Respuesta (1691)

“I do not study in order to be able to write and even less to be able to teach, which seems to me like exaggerating one’s own importance in an overbearing manner. Rather, I study to see if by studying I might become less ignorant…

Although it may be used against me, God has given me the gift of a very profound love of truth. Since I was first struck by the lightening flash of reason, my propensity for learning was so strong and so powerful that neither outside censure (and I have had much) nor my own second thought (and I have had not few) have been able to stop me from pursuing this natural impulse which God put within me…He knows that I have prayed that He would quench the light of my understanding, leaving only enough to keep the Law, for anything else is superfluous (according to some) in a woman. There are even those who say it is harmful…

Continuing the story of my love of learning (of which I want to tell you all, entirely), I say that I was but three years old when my mother sent my older sister to be taught reading from a woman in a kind of school they call Amigas. Mischievously, affectionately, I went with her, and watching her do the lesson, I burned with the desire to learn how to read, and I sought to deceive the teacher by telling her, ‘My mother wanted you to teach me, too.’ Since that was incredible, she did not believe me, but to humor me she gave me a lesson…I learned so quickly that by the time my mother found out, I knew how to read…

I remember that in those days, even though I had the healthy appetite characteristic of ordinary children of that age, I stopped eating cheese because I heard that it made one dull-witted, and in me the desire to learn was stronger than the desire to eat, though ordinarily hunger is the more powerful drive in children.

By the time I was six or seven, I already knew how to read and write as well as how to sew and keep house and all the other skills women learn. I heard tell that in Mexico City there was a university and schools where sciences were studied. No sooner had I heard this than I began to badger my mother with insistent, inconvenient pleas to let me put on men’s clothing and go to Mexico City, where I could live with some relatives and study and attend the university. She wouldn’t let me do it (and quite rightly), but I fulfilled my desire by reading the many and varied books that belonged to my grandfather, and neither punishment nor rebukes could stop me…

[Sor Juana thinks about becoming a nun]. The first thing I had to do was to curb and subdue my impertinent and wayward self, who wanted to live alone and have no obligatory tasks which would interfere with the freedom of my studies...This made me waver in my determination, until certain learned persons explained to me that it was temptation, and, with divine grace, I overcame it and took the veil, which I now wear so unworthily. I thought I had escaped myself, but — miserable me! — I brought myself with me, and I had brought my worst enemy — this love of learning. I cannot determine whether Heaven gave me the love of knowledge as a reward or as a punishment, for even though I sought to put it out and repress it with the many spiritual exercises Religion offers, it would burst forth like a gunshot, sure proof that in me deprivation stimulates the appetite.
I returned to my studies (no, I said it wrong, for I never stopped) — I continued, I mean my studious tasks (which for me were my rest and recreation in all the intervals I had free from obligation), reading and more reading, studying and more studying, with no other teacher than the books themselves…Of course, I sought to elevate it as much as I could and dedicate it to God’s service, because my aspiration was to study Theology, for it seemed to me a censurable clumsiness in a Catholic not to know all that in this life can be learned naturally about the Divine Mysteries; and too, since I was a nun and not a lay person, it seemed to me that I owed it to my profession to study literature…It seemed to me necessary, in order to reach such heights, to climb the stairsteps of human sciences and arts, for how should I understand the language of the queen of sciences if I could not understand the languages of her handmaidens?…

At one time they persuaded a very saintly and guileless abbess, who, believing that study was a matter for the Inquisition, forbade my studying. I obeyed her (for the three months or so that she had authority over me) and did not touch a book; but as for the absolute ban on study, even though I did not study in books, I studied everything that God had created, and all the universal machine served me as alphabet and textbook. I saw nothing without reflecting upon it; everything I heard moved me to thought…Thus I looked at and wondered about everything admiringly, so that even the people I spoke to, and what they said to me, aroused a thousand speculations in me. How did such a variety of temperaments and intellects come about, when we are all of the same species?…

I confess, too that this being the case (as I have explained), I had no need of exemplary models; still, the many I have read about, in both divine writings and the humanities, have never stopped helping me. For I have seen a Deborah giving laws, both military and political, and governing a people who had so many learned men. I read of that sage Queen of Sheba, so learned that she dared to test with riddles the wisdom of the wisest of men and suffered no reproof for it but instead was made the judge of unbelievers. I observe so many illustrious women — some adorned with the gift of prophecy, like Abigail; others, with the gift of persuasion, like Esther; others with piety, like Rahab; other with perseverance, like Anna, mother of Samuel; and an infinite numbers of others, endowed with still other kinds of graces and virtues.

If I turn my gaze to the pagans…I see the Greeks adore as goddess of learning a woman like Minerva, daughter of the first Jupiter and teacher of all the wisdom of Athens…I see the daughter of the divine Tiresius, wiser than her father. I see Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, as wise as she was brave. A Nicostrata, inventor of Latin letters and most accomplished in Greek. An Aspasia of Miletus, who taught philosophy and rhetoric and was the teacher of the philosopher Pericles. A Hypatia, who taught astronomy and studied for a long time in Alexandra…

If some parents wish to educate their daughters above the ordinary, necessity and the lack of the wise women of the ancients, forces them to bring in men to teach the girls how to figure, how to play instruments, and other skills. This would not be a problem if there were wise women of the ancients available. As St. Paul counseled, some would be judges and others would do the customary tasks. Because what is the harm in having a wise women of the ancient, learned in letters and saintly discourse and customs, to undertake the education of young maidens?…

[In defending her comments about Father Vieira’s work]. …I cannot be censured. Would they forbid others to do the same thing? To hold an opinion contrary to Vieira was very bold of me. Was it not bold of him to hold it against three holy Church Fathers? Is not my understanding, after all, as free as his?…Is one of the dogmas of the HolyFaith revealed in his interpretation, so that we must believe it with our eyes closed?…

I confess openly my ruination and vileness, but I swear I have never written an indecent verse…I can assure you that malicious, false accusations have sometimes mortified me, but they have never injured me…

From this convent of our father St. Jerome in Mexico City, the first day of the month of March, 1691. BVM.

Your very grateful,

Source: Doris M. Ladd, Mexican Women in Anahuac and New Spain: Three Study Units, Institute of Latin American Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, 1979, Doris Ladd, trans. Reprinted by permission of Doris M. Ladd.


• What do you think happened to Sor Juana after she wrote her Respuesta? Take some guesses, and then research the answer.

• Identify some of the events in her life that reveal Sor Juana’s passion for learning.

• Why do you think Sor Juana had to defend her interest in matters of the mind?

• In your opinion, which is the strongest argument in La Respuesta in defense of her scholarly life?

• Can you identify any of the historical females Sor Juana mentions in La Respuesta? What point is Sor Juana trying to make by describing their accomplishments?

• Do you think that Sor Juana apologizes for her work and ideas in her Respuesta?
Why or why not?

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