If you’ve ever been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art or taken an art history class, you’ve probably seen the Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. While the painting itself is impressive in its own right, the subject of the work had even more fascinating a life than could ever hope to be captured in oil paint. Not only was Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz a nun, she was also an accomplished poet, composer, writer, and philosopher as well. Though her name might not be as well-known as the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft or Emmeline Pankhurst, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is undoubtedly a shining example of one of the world’s earliest feminists.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was born in Mexico sometime between 1648 and 1651 (scholars are not entirely sure). Due to beliefs about the roles of women at that time, she did not have much access to formal education; however, this did nothing to hinder her curiosity. Sor Juana instead adopted the self-taught method of learning, and was so devoted to her studies that eventually she even caught the attention of the Spanish viceroy Antonio Sebastian de Toledo, who invited her to become a lady-in-waiting at just sixteen years of age.
In 1669, Sor Juana decided to become a nun, as she felt that this was the only profession that would allow her to study without interference. This freedom to pursue her academic interests would lead Sor Juana to become one of the most prolific feminist writers in Mexican history.
Contribution to the Feminist Movement
Though Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz had a profession that you might consider very traditional, her writing was anything but. Sor Juana regularly discussed ideas about women’s rights, the injustice of the patriarchy, and the belief that women should not be confined only to the domestic sphere. In perhaps her most famous poem, titled “Hombres Necios que Acusáis” (“Foolish Men You Accuse”), Sor Juana draws attention to the hypocrisy of many men, stating that they are just as guilty of having the shortcomings they accuse women of having. But Sor Juana’s beliefs were not expressed solely in her poetry; she also wrote a play called Los Empeños de una Casa (House of Desires) in which she criticized the prejudices that women commonly faced at the time.
Though these works were praised by many, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz had no shortage of critics as well. A letter published without her permission caused an outpour of drama in her personal life, as many people were upset with the controversial views she had expressed in the letter concerning the rights of women. Not one to back down from a challenge, Sor Juana responded to the backlash with a reply that some now call the first feminist manifesto. In Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz (Reply to Sister Filotea of the Cross), Sor Juana defended her views on women’s rights, particularly the right to education. Though her statements would eventually cost her her right to publish works and even to have a library, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz never compromised her beliefs.
Influence in Modern Mexico
Today, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has come to be recognized as a figurehead of the feminist movement in Mexico. She has been called the “New World’s first feminist,” and her likeness has adorned Mexican currency for decades, making her one of only ten women to ever appear on Mexican money (a group that also includes Frida Kahlo and Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez).
Though her image no longer resides on any currency, her works remain essential instructional tools in Mexican academia.
Influence in the United States
Though Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s influence has been relatively limited in the United States thus far, it seems that she deserves just as much recognition as American feminists like Susan B. Anthony and Eleanor Roosevelt. As our world becomes increasingly globalized, it would serve us well to learn about the women who have made a difference not only in our country of origin, but all around the world. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz may be famous in the United States because of the portrait of her hanging in a Philadelphia art museum, but it is clear that her contributions to the modern world extend far beyond the frame in which her painted likeness resides.
Isabel is a student from South Carolina who enjoys writing, drawing, and other artistic endeavors. She has a strong interest in the women’s rights movement, and hopes to contribute to that movement through her writing.