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Published Date: May 10, 2023

Published Date: May 10, 2023

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Women in Scripture and Mission: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

The poet who would come to be known as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was born in 1648 as Juana Ramírez de Asbaje, the illegitimate but apparently well-loved daughter of a comfortably well-off family in Amecameca, Mexico.[1] A child prodigy, she taught herself Latin, Greek, and Nahuatl, and she was creating poetry by age eight.[2] Much of this knowledge was gained by hiding in the hacienda chapel to read the books from her grandfather’s library.[3] At age thirteen, she moved to live with an aunt and uncle in Mexico City, where she eventually wanted to attend university—but it was closed to women, and her family strictly forbade her from disguising herself as a man to attend in secret.[4] Instead, she continued to study on her own as a lady-in-waiting at the Spanish viceroy’s court. Her knowledge and ability to discuss complex scientific and literary subjects sent her reputation far and wide, and she received several marriage proposals.[5]

But Juana Ramírez de Asbaje had little interest in marriage, which would have greatly limited her ability to continue her studies.[6] Instead, she joined a convent, taking the religious name of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. The religious order that she eventually chose, the Hieronymite nuns of the Convent of Santa Paula,[7] ran a school for girls and had relaxed rules that allowed her a comfortable lifestyle and great freedom to read and to write. She continued to receive many visitors from court, held salons in the convent’s parlor,[8] and her personal library reportedly grew to become one of the largest in the New World, also including musical instruments and objects of art. [9] Historians estimate that she collected thousands of volumes—impressive even for today, let alone in the sixteenth century![10] Today, Sor Juana is perhaps best known for her delightful poetry, but she was so much more. Her works included paintings, theater, and treatises on a variety of topics. With the viceroy and vicereine as her patrons, she was published in Spain and gained a truly international reputation.[11]

Then, in 1691, it all came crashing down.[12]

Forty years before, a Portuguese Jesuit named Father Antonio Vieyra had published a sermon in which he expounded on Jesus Christ’s act of washing his disciples’ feet—including the feet of Judas—before his crucifixion. Father Antonio argued that this act was something that Jesus Christ had carried out for the sake of love itself. Sor Juana disagreed. The act, she argued, was out of his love for humanity.[13] To our modern ears, this may seem like an extremely fine distinction, but it had serious implications for the nature of Christ’s love and his relationship with us as members of humankind. It has also serious implications for Sor Juana, because Father Antonio was a respected ecclesiastical authority, and she, a mere woman, had dared to criticize him publicly.[14]

Not everyone took issue with this at first. The Bishop of Puebla, a friend of Sor Juana, was so impressed that he had her critique of Father Antonio published at his own expense (without asking her permission first). However, the published work drew so much negative attention that he quickly changed his tune. In an open letter to Sor Juana, writing under the pseudonym of “Sor Filotea,” the same man who had supported and published her work now asked her to give up her intellectual pursuits altogether. Ironically, he openly stated that he agreed with her criticisms of Father Antonio. The problem, he said, was not with the content of what she had written but with the fact that she, a woman, was writing at all. Her soul, he implied, was in danger. She needed to devote herself to the conventional work of a nun: prayer and acts of charity.[15]

Sor Juana had long defended the importance of her intellectual work in the eyes of God. Ten years earlier, she had written to her confessor, “[God] has made many keys to Heaven and has not confined Himself to a single criterion; rather, there are many mansions of people of as many different natures…”[16] In the same letter, often called her “Spiritual Self-Defense,” she writes, “But who has prohibited women private and individual studies? Do they not have a rational soul like men?. . .What divine revelation, what determination of the Church, what dictate of reason made for us such a severe law?”[17] Heaven, in other words, had plenty of room for scholars, and she rightly recognized that there was no reason, logical,  scriptural, or otherwise, why women should be excluded from studying. Now, in 1691, she responded to the Bishop of Puebla’s open letter with an open letter of her own, defending women’s rights to a formal education and particularly, their right to study and interpret Scripture.[18]

Sor Juana: an Enduring Inspiration

Her arguments were fruitless. Sor Juana was ordered to stop writing. Her library was sold off, and never again would church authorities be forced to contend with this intellectual powerhouse with ideas of her own. Sor Juana disappeared from all public life and, four years later, died of the plague — a disease she contracted while serving as a nurse to her fellow nuns.[19]

But Sor Juana’s great body of work was already in the world, and her writing has continued to inspire us through the ages. Although her secular writing often receives the most attention from secular academics, religious treatises like her critique of Father Vieyra show that Sor Juana did not merely parrot the theological ideas she had been handed. Instead, she had a clear personal faith and knowledge of God, with deep spiritual insights about which she was passionate enough to challenge the theological status quo—determined to speak the truth about God even to her own detriment.

Women today are far freer to pursue intellectual careers, but even now, they may be discouraged from studying by parents or other authorities who do not believe women have a place outside the home. This opposition becomes far more common when women are called to enter the field of theology, particularly if they have the audacity to challenge men’s conclusions and publish their own ideas about God. Studying Sor Juana’s life reminds us to speak the truth, even to our detriment, and to trust God with the long-term outcome. The final years of Sor Juana’s life may have been the most difficult; she probably felt she had been silenced forever, and that all her years of work and study had been for nothing. Instead, hundreds of years later, we continue to marvel at her poetic genius and thank God for her spiritual insights. Sor Juana’s life is an excellent reminder that God’s call on a woman’s life will not be denied, no matter the strictures the fallen world attempts to place on her. Even when it appears that evil has won, it rarely does.


[1]Learn more about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” Government of Mexico, accessed April 11, 2023.

See also Ilan Stavans, “Introduction,” in Poems, Protest, and a Dream, by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), xxiii.

[2]Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” Academy of American Poets, accessed April 11, 2023.

[3] Academy of American Poets, “Sor Juana.”

[4]Sor Juana (1648–1695),” Project Vox, accessed April 11, 2023.

[5] Academy of American Poets, “Sor Juana.” See also Stavans, “Introduction,” xxvii.

[6] Stavans, “Introduction,” xxxv.

[7] Government of Mexico, “Learn more.” See also “Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed April 11, 2023.

[8] Project Vox, “Sor Juana.”

[9] Stavans, “Introduction,” xxxvi. See also Encyclopedia Britannica, “Sor Juana.”

[10] Stavans, “Introduction,” xii.

[11] Encyclopedia Britannica, “Sor Juana.”

[12] Stavans, “Introduction,” xi.

[13] Stavans, “Introduction,” xiii.

[14] Stavans, “Introduction,” xiv.

[15] Stavans, “Introduction,” xiv-xv.

[16] Stavans, “Introduction,” xix.

[17] Project Vox, “Sor Juana.” See also Aureliano Tapia Méndez, “Autodefensa espiritual de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Décima Musa Mexicana,” La Colmena no. 5 (1995): 4-13.

[18] Project Vox, “Sor Juana.” See also Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, “Response to the Most Illustrious Poetess Sor Filotea de la Cruz,” in Poems, Protest, and a Dream, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 2-75.

[19] Stavans, “Introduction,” xii, xli-xlii.