Historians don’t usually rave about the Early Colonial Period (1500-1700) as a time of great creative output, so you can imagine our surprise when we encountered the work of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (November 12, 1651 – April 17, 1695) while researching and writing the Early Encounters unit of Women and the American Story, due out this fall. Not only was Juana a talented poet and philosopher, but she was also one of the first feminist literary women in the Americas.
Juana was a nun in New Spain, the territory that encompassed present-day Mexico and the American southwest. In her lifetime she was well-known for her scholarly pursuits. She was a self-taught scholar, religious philosopher, composer, and poet. Her poetry and prose, which covered topics like love, religion, feminism, and women’s rights to education, garnered the most attention.
One of her poems, written in 1680s, “Hombres necios que acusáis” (“You Foolish Men”), expresses her disappointment in the hypocrisy of the relations between men and women in New Spain. In the first, stanza Juana cries foul that men blame women for the faults that male-dominated society has taught them:
Hombres necios que acusáis You foolish men who lay
a la mujer sin razón, the guilt on women,
sin ver que sois la ocasión not seeing you’re the cause
de lo mismo que culpáis: of the very thing you blame
The 5th stanza drives this point home with a pointed mythical metaphor:
Queréis, con presunción necia, With foolish arrogance
hallar a la que buscáis, you hope to find a Thais
para pretendida, Thais, in her you court, but a Lucretia
y en la posesión, Lucrecia when you’ve possessed her.
Thais was a sex worker who accompanied Alexander the Great on many of his campaigns, and Lucretia was a Roman noblewoman who committed suicide after she was raped to preserve her family’s honor. Essentially, she is accusing the men of New Spain of wanting the colonial version of the “ lady on the street and a freak in the bed” double standard, an impossible standard in any era.
Juana goes on to highlight the double standard of sexual relationships in which women are criticized for being chaste and criticized for being sexually active.
Con el favor y el desdén Their favour and disdain
tenéis condición igual, you hold in equal state,
quejándoos, si os tratan mal, if they mistreat, you complain,
burlándoos, si os quieren bien. you mock if they treat you well.
Opinión, ninguna gana: No woman wins esteem of you:
pues la que más se recata, the most modest is ungrateful
si no os admite, es ingrata, if she refuses to admit you;
y si os admite, es liviana yet if she does, she’s loose
Juana’s criticism was incredibly radical for its time, especially from a nun who was supposed to concern herself only with spiritual matters. And while Juana did receive criticism from the church for her radical ideologies, she was also praised for her candidness and commitment to women’s advocacy.
Juana was an exceptional woman who mastered philosophical theories and multiple languages, and who used her considerable talents to advocate for women’s rights. By giving our students the opportunity to analyze her work, we provide them with the opportunity to learn about the life of a woman, a nun, and a scholar in New Spain, and give them an insider’s first-hand account of what it was like to live in that community. And poems like this demonstrate that the issues highlighted by modern feminist movements, like #MeToo, have been going on for centuries.
Looking for more ways to incorporate the experiences of women in your colonial America lesson plans? Keep an eye on the Women and the American Story website, where our Early Encounters unit will be appearing in pilot form this summer. We will officially launch the unit at our teacher workshops on Election Day 2018. It will feature documents, images, life stories, and other sources that will illuminate the lives of women of all races and ages in the English, French, Dutch, and Spanish colonies of North America, from 1492 until about 1740. As for the complete poem “Hombre Necios / Foolish Men,” read on.
– Regan Loggans, Education Division.
Top image credits: Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695), circa 1750. Chapultepec Castle-National Museum of History (detail).