Encyclopedia Womannica

Beautiful Minds: Juana Inés de la Cruz

Episode Summary

Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695) was a poet, scholar, writer and nun.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

This month we’re talking about Beautiful Minds, intellectual giants whose work had an extraordinary impact.

Today we’re heading back to the 17th century Spanish colonies in America to talk about a fascinating poet, scholar, writer and nun. Meet Juana Inés de la Cruz. 

Juana Ramirez de Asbaje was born on November 12th around 1651 in San Miguel Nepantla in what was then the Viceroyalty of New Spain and is now Mexico. 

Juana was born to parents who were not married and who didn’t have much money. Her mother was creole and her father was Spanish. Juana had little formal education but was extremely intellectually curious. Juana’s mother saw much promise in her daughter and sent her to live with relatives in Mexico City. 

There, Juana’s immense intelligence drew the attention of the Viceroy. In 1664, he invited Juana to court as a lady-in-waiting. It’s said that the viceroy also had Juana’s intelligence tested by 40 scholars. 

In 1667, Juana decided to become a nun thereby becoming known as Sor Juana. She did so citing a “total disinclination to marriage” and wishing for freedom to continue her studies. After a quick stop at a different order, Sor Juana settled at the Convent of Santa Paula for the rest of her life. 

At the convent, Sor Juana studied, wrote, served as the convent’s archivist and accountant, and taught music and drama at the convent’s school. Her cell held one of the largest private libraries in the New World. 

The Viceroy and Vicereine of New Spain continued to support Sor Juana and that gave her a lot of freedom for a woman at that time. She became the unofficial court poet, kept up correspondence with others at court, and had her works published in Spain.  

Sor Juana excelled at all forms of poetry in the Spanish Golden Age, including sonnets, romantic ballads and more. Her writings were witty and inventive, and she touched on themes of morality, religion, satire, romance, and courtly praise. She referenced Classical, biblical, mythological, and philosophical sources.  Juana also wrote carols and religious and secular plays. She wrote an extraordinary amount-- the modern edition of her complete works edited by Alfonso Méndez Plancarte and Alberto G. Salceda is four large volumes. 

In Sor Juana’s works, she posited women as reasonable and knowledgeable rather than passionate. In her poem, “Hombres Necios” she points to men as being guilty of the foolish antics they say are the follies of women. 

Juana wrote many poems in the first person about everything from love to fame to intelligence, always from the position of a strong, intellectual woman. Her plays featured leading ladies who were witty and brave. 

Sor Juana wrote about the many hurdles she overcame throughout her life in her thirst for learning and, quoting an Aragonese poet, wrote: “One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper.”

Juana also wrote about her native country. Some of her works blended Aztec and Christian religious beliefs and her carols mix native Mexican, Hispano-African and Spanish languages. 

Sor Juana became quite well known in Mexico and Spain. But with fame, came controversy. Sor Juana’s special status granted due to her relationship with the Viceroy and Vicereine slipped once the leaders returned to Spain. 

In 1690, the bishop of Puebla published Sor Juana’s critique of a sermon by Antonio Vieira and suggested she should spend more time on religious pursuits. Sor Juana had not given her consent to the publication. She responded by defending women’s right to seek knowledge citing important learned women from throughout history, including in biblical times. She used words of Christian scholars including St. Jerome and St. Paul to support her claims.

Eventually, Sor Juana’s fight died down. She stopped writing so much, sold her library, renewed her religious vows, and did penitence. 

Sor Juana died on April 17, 1695, in an epidemic. 

Sor Juana’s legacy lives on in her many writings and her apparent genius. She has become a symbol of Mexico and appears on the 200 pesos bill. 

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Beautiful Mind. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!