Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz lived a life without fear regarding the social criticisms of her writing and she wrote to influence change regarding the educational stereotypes made by the men of her era. Sor Juana worked diligently to educate herself continuously throughout her life in order to reach a level of sophistication that no man could contest. The educational life of Sor Juana started at the age of three in 1651, when she convinced her sister’s professor to teach her how to read.
From that day forward, she continued striving to educate herself further. She did so by reading books out of her grandfather’s library until she had finally read them all. Sor Juana was born in San Miguel Mepantla, Mexico in 1648. She was born into a Catholic family during a time where the education of women was next to non-existent; therefore, her passion to learn was not socially accepted. Sor Juana was raised partially by her mother but predominately by her grandfather without the help of her maternal father.
Somewhere between 1654 and 1658 Sor Juana heard of the University of Mexico, and her desire to attend was so strong that she dressed and acted like a boy in order to enroll, but her mother would not allow it. By the age of eight Sor Juana composed a Loa, which is a short dramatic poem in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. By the age of eleven Sor Juana’s knowledge and memory were so vast and keen that she was considered to be a young prodigy.
In 1659 Sor Juana was sent to Mexico City in order to study under a priest named Martin de Olivar, who was completely amazed with the level of intelligence Sor Juana had already achieved, and at how quickly she continued to learn. In 1664 the rumors of her intelligence had spread so widely that eventually Sor Juana was presented at the court of a new viceregal couple in front of Antonio Sebastian de Toledo (the Marquis de Mancera) and Leonor Carreto, where her intelligence was ultimately tested.
Sor Juana was examined by a court of theologians, philosophers, mathematicians, historians, poets, and other specialists who sought to prove that Sor Juana was not the educated individual rumors had portrayed her to be by asking her a wide variety of questions over a diverse range of subjects, which she passed handily. Sor Juana was so dedicated to educating herself, almost obsessively so, that if she felt she was not learning rapidly enough, she would cut her hair as punishment.
She believed in education so thoroughly and reading and writing were her great passion, which was considered entirely unorthodox for women, and thus she used her religion as a gateway into a career that would allow her to fulfill these ambitions and she became a nun at the age of sixteen. In 1667 Sor Juana entered the Convent of the Discalced Carmelites of St. Joseph, but grew dissatisfied by all of their rules and regulations and left within the same year.
Two years later in 1669 Sor Juana joined the Convent of the Order of St. Jerome, which she was a very solid fit for her and she continued to practice her faith and lived in community with them for the rest of her life. By entering the convent Sor Juana was completely liberated and she had the ability to maintain her own library, teach music and drama to children, and most importantly continuously write her inspirational poetry and other literary works freely. The only down side to her life’s work was that later in life many men of the church were unhappy with her expressing some of her feminist views to the public.
Sor Juana’s incredible body of work includes her outstanding written works that explored such different forms such as loas, plays, comedies, historical vignettes and imaginative tales of mythology. Sor Juana was leading feminist of her time and it was later discovered that she was actually not as religious a person as she professed to be, but had been using her convent as a platform in order to influence society’s views about feminism and attempt to influence feminist views in the church.
Sor Juana used her writing to defend the educational rights of women and their intellectual abilities, and she also believed that educating women could be used to advance the service of God. Sor Juana’s willingness to write her true sentiments led to one of her more controversial works in 1690 that criticized a forty year old sermon by a well-established Portuguese Jesuit, Antonio de Vieira. Sor Juana never intended this letter to be published. She sent this letter to one of her long time good friends Bishop of Puebla, who took it into his own hands and published the letter behind Sor Juana’s back.
Her criticism of the church predominantly attacked the fact that the church persisted in only educating males. After this event Sor Juana was asked to stop writing and reading, and be more of a traditional, reverent nun, which lead her to respond to these comments with more letters in 1691. In her following letters she defended herself by writing about the culture of the Mexican women, and how totally one-sided and biased the educational system was, which was counterproductive and that all people should have the right to an education.
The major issue and proclamation that soon followed in 1693 was that the church censored all of Sor Juana’s writing in order to prevent her from writing anything that could be considered anti-religious or feministic. Shortly after her final few letters, she dedicated herself to self-sacrifice by leaving her reading and writing behind and helping the impoverished during the last four years of her life. In 1695 Sor Juana died doing just that. She died from a plague after taking care of fellow nuns who had already been infected.