Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was an exceptional seventeenth-century nun who set precedents for feminism long before the term or concept existed. Her “Respuesta” is a maverick work outlining the logical sense of women’s education more than 200 years before Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.” Her poetry, meanwhile, states in bold language the potency of the feminine in both love and religion.
Juana Inés Ramirez was born out of wedlock to Isabel Ramirez and Manuel de Asbaje in a small village in Mexico, New Spain. Manuel soon abandoned the family, so mother and child spent a great deal of time with Juana’s grandfather, Pedro Ramirez. It was in Pedro’s book-filled house that Juana learned to read. (Girls of her time were rarely, if ever, formally educated.) The door to learning then burst open — the young prodigy would embark upon a life shaped and shaken by intellectual inquiry. She quickly gained renown in society and became a lady-in-waiting in the court of the Spanish viceroy. Yet she soon left the court for the nunnery; practically speaking, this was the best way for an illegitimately born woman to secure the time and resources for scholarship.
But Sor Juana did not shut herself away in an ascetic cell. She started out as a novice in the Carmelite order, but the order’s predilection for little sleep and self-flagellation repelled her after a few months. Eventually she found a sect that was more her speed as a lady of letters and a former courtier: the order of San Jerónimo gave her an entire suite of her own, complete with bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, library, and servant. Her library — which held Mexico’s largest book collection — developed into a meeting-place for the intellectual elite. Those who frequented the salon included future viceroy Marquis de La Laguna and the Countess de Pareda, known to her intimates as Maria Luisa.