I may be a historian, and I may align with feminist thinking, but I am not a feminist historian. Feminist history usually involves digging up forgotten people (women) from the past, and then holding them up to show how they were oppressed, subjected by male patriachy, or silenced. In some cases it is important to look at the past from a female perspective; in other cases it’s bad history as it extrapolates the experience of one obscure individual as being applicable to all women of a time period or circumstance; it actually does relatively little to illuminate the past, nor to further feminist causes. However, it can serve to raise consciousness about gender imbalance and the difficulties women faced in the past. This is a noteworthy endeavor, as the recent series on the wives of Joseph Smith over at Mormon Feminist Housewives has shown, in order to gauge societal progress but also as a reminder of women’s hard won battles that led to that progress.

Today we take intellectual freedom for granted; in our day people, regardless of their sex, can learn, read and voice their opinions. A recent production by the Royal Shakespeare company is a poignant reminder of one of the battles that ultimately enabled female intellectual life to be accepted. The excellent play Heresy of Love written by Helen Edmundson is based on the true story of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. Sor Juana was a seventeenth century nun, who was born and raised in Mexico; the story of her life is both an inspiring story of the tension between study, faith, and intellectual freedom and a tragedy of male domination that silences one of the great female and feminist voices in Mexico. Juana de la Cruz stands as a powerful figure of women’s intellectual freedom; yet, for most people her name is meaningless. Thankfully her story has been remembered in the excellent biography of her Sor Juana Or, The Traps of Faith, by Octavio Paz.

Early Life

The early life of Sor Juana was unconventional. By the age of three she was was sneaking into her grandfather’s library to read as many books as she could. Juana’s ability to grasp languages was revealed when she learnt Latin after only twenty lessons. She would motivate herself to learn by cutting off her hair if she did not meet her personal intellectual goals.  In her words:

“my interest was so intense, that although in women (and especially in the very bloom of youth) the natural adornment of the hair is so esteemed, I would cut off four to six fingerlengths of my hair, measuring how long it had been before. And I made myself a rule that if by the time it had grown back to the same length I did not know such and such a thing that I intended to study, then I would cut my hair off again to punish my dull-wittedness. And so my hair grew, but I did not yet know what I had resolved to learn, for it grew quickly and I learned slowly. Then I cut my hair right off to punish my dull-wittedness, for I did not think it reasonable that hair should cover a head that was so bare of knowledge – the more desirable adornment.”

As Juana got older she pleaded for her mother to allow her to dress as a boy so that she might be able to learn more by attending the all-male university of Mexico in disguise. Her parents denied her request and they preferred “to let their daughters remain uncivilized and untutored, rather than risk exposing them to such notorious peril as this familiarity with men.” Instead, Juana entered the royal court at the age of sixteen. At court she wrote numerous plays and poems and developed a friendship with the wife of the Viceroy, Mexico’s governor, who encouraged her to publish her writings and remained a loyal patron of Juana’s work throughout her life. Because of her popularity in the court Juana received several marriage proposals; however, she rejected them all to focus on her intellectual pursuits.

The Monastry


At the age of twenty Juana entered a monastery to devote her life to study and writing in the only socially acceptable way open to her. As a nun Juana was appointed monastery librarian; she continued to write poems and plays. Her study was not always popular with the other nuns, as Juana described:

“a very saintly and simple mother superior who believed that study was an affair for the Inquisition and ordered that I should not read. I obeyed her (for the three months or so that her authority over us lasted) in that I did not pick up a book. But with regard to avoiding study absolutely, as such a thing does not lie within my power, I could not do it. For although I did not study in books, I studied all the things that God created, taking them for my letters, and for my book all the intricate structures of this world.”

For Juana learning and studying was a vital part of who she was.  She constantly struggled within a church environment that told her that to resist studying; yet, she also knew that her mind was given her from God and she should use it. She also perceived the inequality in this injunction on studying, as she shared with a friend:

“If studies, my Lady, be merits (for indeed I see them extolled as such in men), in me they are no such thing.”

Women were encouraged to remain in holy ignorance.  For Juana, this was even more frustrating as she was able to perceive the flawed thinking rampant amongst men yet as a woman she was not allowed to question it and was told it was wrong for her to think about it. The female mind restricted by her society, yet as she argues:

“Is my mind, such as it is, less free than his, though it derives from the same source? Is his opinion to be taken as one of the principles of the Holy Faith make manifest, that we must believe it blindly?”

Juana was mostly able to study in peace, consuming new ideas and filling her room with the latest scientific instruments and philosophical texts. However when a new Jesuit Archbishop arrived in Mexico from Spain, he was against plays and poems, especially when authored by women. He considered a nun devoting time to such trivial pursuits to be a mockery of God. The archbishop zealously attempted to silence Sor Juana de la Cruz.  In his words:  “All this study is not fitting, for holy ignorance is your duty; she shall go to perdition, she shall surely be cast down from such heights by that same wit and cleverness.”

The Betrayal

In the face of this increasing opposition, Sor Juana found solace in the Bishop of Puebla who encouraged her to keep studying and cultivating her mind. However, his apparent kindness was not out of concern for her.  The bishop saw Juana as a means to cultivate popular support with the royal court and encouraged her subversion to foster antagonism between her supporters and the new archbishop. On the surface, the two became allies in support of intellectual freedom against the archbishop’s strictures. Yet, in this alliance, Juana was only valued by the bishop for her ability to manipulate the court, not for her intellectual gifts.

This friendship ended in 1690  when Sor Juana critiqued a famous sermon given forty years earlier by the eminent Portuguese Jesuit, Antonio de Vieira. The Bishop of Puebla was so impressed with her argument that he published her critique without her permission as a Missive Worthy of Athena. However, he also included a letter of his own admonishing Sor Juana for her intellectualism under the pen name Sor Philothea de la Cruz.  His actions led to Sor Juana’s downfall.  His letter of introduction admonished women to refrain from intellectual matters, making it easy for the anti-intellectual archbishop to order the Inquisition to examine Sor Juana.

Before being taken into custody Juana wrote a response to the bishops publication, a soaring defence of women’s rights to education and intellectual freedom. This work is perhaps one of the most elequent expressions of women’s freedom. She traces her own life story and the obstacles and challenges she faced in a world determined to suppress her; she also specifically outlines the church’s opposition to her use of her gift. Despite the danger Juana refused to flee the country out of concern that her running would be perceived as evidence of her guilt; she remained to face the Inquisition. She ultimately sold all her books, and never again wrote a single poem or play. She died when the convent suffered an attack of plague.

Perhaps the most distressing part of Juana’s story was the way in which she was the pawn of powerful men who used her for their own agenda. Ultimately she became victim to the machinations of men who betrayed her and used their authority to subdue and control Juana.  For me her story is a reminder of the importance of intellectual freedom, but also the danger of silencing women in church, and of marginalising female opinions. The case of Juana de la Cruz is a poignant reminder that in the church today women’s views are still in danger of being dismissed by virtue of the sex of the speaker.