Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz: Defender of women's rights


It is incredible how the human mind works and how certain events trigger reactions and thoughts that, although they may not be closely related, have in common certain ideas, attitudes and beliefs.

The crisis here in the United States and practically all over the world - particularly the West - of sexual harassment and assault by men in powerful positions brought to memory a famous Mexican woman: a writer, philosopher, poet, feminist, a nun. In general, she was a woman of great knowledge, physical beauty and exceptional intelligence. Her name was Sor (for Sister) Juana Ines de la Cruz.

Sor Juana lived in the 17th century in Mexico, the daughter of a Mexican woman and a Spanish father. She lived during the period when the glory of the Spanish empire was already in decline.

Her original name was Juana Ramirez, and she surprised everybody when at 16 she joined the Carmelite barefoot order of St. Jerome, where she stayed until her death at 46 year old. Even though she was from a poor family, her beauty and intelligence allowed her to be accepted by the highest levels of Spanish society, both in Europe and Latin America, which was still totally controlled by Spain.

Her cell in the convent became a true study where Sor Juana produced all her work: poetry, essays, plays and philosophical studies. Since she was a woman and a nun living in a Spanish colony, her work was considered a true revolution. Some have suggested that she went into seclusion to avoid being married at an early age and not for love. A traditional life would have meant forfeiting her intellectual life.

Sor Juana was always convinced that the female, from childhood to adulthood, was entitled to an education and to choose her field of study. In contemporary terms, we speak of access and equality, especially of pay.

Does all this ring any bells? Imagine this attitude being communicated in a conservative world and by a nun.

Sor Juana died young, a victim of one of the many epidemics that affected Latin America and Europe. Nevertheless, she left a great body of work. One of her very famous poems that has been memorized and studied by both students and specialists in the Spanish-speaking world is titled "Redondillas."

I will only attempt to translate some of the lines, but I encourage those that know Spanish to read the whole poem:

Arrogant men

who accuse women, without reason,

not seeing that you are the reason

of what you blame;

-- Oh, who is guiltier,

regardless of the fault;

she who sins for pay

or he who pays to sin?


Many different weapons

are shown by your arrogance

as in promises and deeds

you join together the devil, the flesh and the world.

Even though Sor Juana addresses, in particular, the abused woman, I think her works are as appropriate today as they were in her lifetime, centuries ago. I wonder who will write today's "Redondillas" denouncing abusive priests? Who will write "Redondillas" denouncing the trafficking of children (both boys and girls)? Who will write "Redondillas" for all the women attacked for "staining" the family honor? We all know that there is nothing new under the sun; however, let us not give up.

Someday, in some century, it will not be necessary anymore to fight for respect and equality. That is why we have to continuously try to improve reality. Each step is important; someday we will move mountains.

The Spanish version of this story is here.