History’s “worst” nun – Theresa A. Yugar


Juana Ramírez de Asbaje sat before a panel
of prestigious theologians, jurists, and mathematicians. The viceroy of New Spain had invited them
to test the young woman’s knowledge by posing the most difficult questions
they could muster. But Juana successfully answered
every challenge, from complicated equations to
philosophical queries. Observers would later liken the scene to “a royal galleon fending
off a few canoes.” The woman who faced this interrogation
was born in the mid-17th century. At that time, Mexico had been a Spanish
colony for over a century, leading to a complex and
stratified class system. Juana’s maternal grandparents
were born in Spain, making them members of Mexico’s
most esteemed class. But Juana was born out of wedlock, and
her father – a Spanish military captain – left her mother, Doña Isabel,
to raise Juana and her sisters alone. Fortunately, her grandfather’s
moderate means ensured the family
a comfortable existence. And Doña Isabel set a strong example
for her daughters, successfully managing one of her father’s
two estates, despite her illiteracy and the
misogyny of the time. It was perhaps this precedent that
inspired Juana’s lifelong confidence. At age three, she secretly followed her
older sister to school. When she later learned that higher
education was open only to men, she begged her mother to let her attend
in disguise. Her request denied, Juana found solace
in her grandfather’s private library. By early adolescence, she’d mastered
philosophical debate, Latin, and the Aztec language Nahuatl. Juana’s precocious intellect attracted
attention from the royal court in Mexico City, and when she was sixteen, the viceroy and his wife took her in
as their lady-in-waiting. Here, her plays and poems alternately
dazzled and outraged the court. Her provocative poem Foolish Men infamously criticized sexist
double standards, decrying how men corrupt women
while blaming them for immorality. Despite its controversy, her work still
inspired adoration, and numerous proposals. But Juana was more interested in knowledge
than marriage. And in the patriarchal
society of the time, there was only one place
she could find it. The Church, while still under the zealous
influence of the Spanish Inquisition, would allow Juana to retain her
independence and respectability while remaining unmarried. At age 20, she entered the Hieronymite
Convent of Santa Paula and took on her new name:
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. For years, Sor Juana was considered a
prized treasure of the church. She wrote dramas, comedies, and treatises
on philosophy and mathematics, in addition to religious music and poetry. She accrued a massive library, and was visited by many
prominent scholars. While serving as the convent’s treasurer
and archivist, she also protected the livelihoods of her
niece and sisters from men who tried to exploit them. But her outspokenness ultimately brought
her into conflict with her benefactors. In 1690, a bishop published Sor Juana’s
private critique of a respected sermon. In the publication, he admonished Sor Juana to devote herself
to prayer rather than debate. She replied that God would not have given
women intellect if he did not want them to use it. The exchange caught the attention of the
conservative Archbishop of Mexico. Slowly, Sor Juana was stripped of her
prestige, forced to sell her books
and give up writing. Furious at this censorship, but unwilling
to leave the church, she bitterly renewed her vows. In her last act of defiance, she signed
them “I, the worst of all,” in her own blood. Deprived of scholarship, Sor Juana threw
herself into charity work, and in 1695, she died of an illness she
contracted while nursing her sisters. Today, Sor Juana has been recognized
as the first feminist in the Americas. She’s the subject of countless
documentaries, novels, and operas, and appears on Mexico’s 200-peso banknote. In the words of Nobel laureate
Octavio Paz: “It is not enough to say that Sor Juana’s
work is a product of history; we must add that history is also
a product of her work.”

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