Juana Inés de la Cruz. Lesbian feminist nun of New Spain, aka Mexico
This woman is incredible! She was born in 1648. She was the illegitimate daughter of a Spainish Captain and a Crioll woman. At this time in history there was a class system that was very sexist and very racist and being a bastard child did not do Juana any favors.
But Juana Inés was smart. I mean super smart. She could read by age three. At age eight she had written her first poem. By thirteen she was teaching Latin and had learned the Aztec language Na wat ul. Nahuatl. She was self taught, devouring all the books in her grandfather’s library.
At age 16 Juana Inés was sent from her rural hometown, to Mexico City, the center of New Spain. She begged to be allowed to dress as a boy so she could go to university. Her mom said no, so Juana Inés continued to teach herself. Juana Inés joined the court as a lady in waiting and quickly became a favorite to the Viceroy and his wife.
Famously, the Viceroy had 40 of the greatest scholars test Juana Inés’s knowledge and she smashed it! This test along with her writing made Juana Inés very popular and famous doing her time in court. She received many marriage proposals but turned them down. She instead enter a convent at age 19, so that nothing could get in the way of her studies.
During this time she wrote and studied intently. She accumulated a library of over 4,000 books and wrote a huge body of work; including poetry, philosophy, theology, and plays. Her work had many femisist messages and advocacy for native peoples. Within her poetry, a good amount was devoted to praising the beauty of various women. Her letters and poems to (vice-rin) Vicereine Maria Luisa are particularly devoted. The Vicerine had a body of Juana Inés’ work published essentially saving her work from destruction.
In 1690, after over 20 years as a nun, the bishop published a critique Juana Inés wrote of a 40-year-old serman. He published it under the pseudonym of Sor Filotea along with a letter pretending to be another nun criticizing Juana Inés. The letter attacked her, saying that she should be focusing on religious, rather than secular studies. It also reiterated the prominent optintion of the time, that women were intellectually inferior to men and should not be allowed to learn or write.
Juana Inés de la Cruz came back with fire; in the form of a letter. Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz (Reply to Sister Philotea) reads like a feminist manifesto. Juana Inés defends women’s right to learn and declares that women are just as capable of intelligent thought. She calls for female teachers in order to avoid the danger of male teachers around young female student. She also famously quotes St. Teresa of Ávila saying, "One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper.”
Needless to say, the church did not love this. A few years later Juana Inés apparently gave up all her books and scientific equipment. It seems she gives up writing in order to avoid censorship and further punishment.
But… If you haven’t found it yet, you may find a secret stash of books under Juana’s desk.
She died in 1695 after caring for other nuns struck with the plague.
After her death, they found hidden in her cell over 100 volumes and many packets of writing; both complete and in progress. Despite her apparent turn, Juana Inés de la Cruz’s love for writing and learning could not be stopped.
Her writings are studied and admired to this day. Especially her feminist sentiments and advocay for respect of native people. There are many monuments to Juana Inés throughout Mexico including her appearing on the 200 peso note. And appropriately, the convent she was in is now a university that bears her name.
Now, better set everything back the way it was so no one else knows.