Baroque Consilience: Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

Baroque Consilience: Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

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by Carol Blakney and Abel Alves


Man, in sum, the greatest marvel
posed to human comprehension,
a synthesis composed
of qualities of angel, plant, and beast,
whose elevated baseness
shows traits of each of these. 

—Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, “El Sueño,” lines 690-695.1

Colonial Latin America’s great feminist poet, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (ca. 1648-1695), combined images of transcendence with the immanence of nature in her eloquent writing. Her theological perspective that human beings are made up of “qualities of angel, plant, and beast” has come to be described in the contemporary world in terms of evolution and genetics. Her belief in the capacity of women to compete with men has also continued to be supported in the documentation of female agency throughout nature and history. Juana excelled at the observation and analysis of natural phenomena and was determined to extend those intellectual skills in the study of theology—queen of the sciences. Her belief in her own intelligence was a challenge to social norms that instilled a general disbelief in women’s intelligence. She lived with a persistent internal conflict as a result of this disconnect between her innate abilities and the construction of culture. In her own era, Juana vividly described her personal inclination and drive from childhood to learn and study, and the social tension that resulted. Her determination in the face of a demeaning patriarchal system created a new historical legacy demonstrating the role social tension and stasis play in the progression of human knowledge. Her extraordinary ability to incorporate personal inspiration into academic tradition allowed her to break through intellectual boundaries, but her work only became an historical legacy because of her ability to analyze her options and to secure political alliances.

Having been a lady in waiting at Mexico City’s viceregal court from 1664 until entering the Santa Paula convent in 1669, Juana first built an alliance with the Marqués and Marquesa de Mancera and established enough ongoing ties at court to develop strong personal relationships with three other viceroys. These governing viceroys included the Viceroy-Archbishop Payo Enríquez de Rivera, who commissioned her to design a triumphal arch in 1680, and the Marqués de la Laguna, for whom the arch was constructed upon his assuming the post of viceroy, and whose wife, the Marquesa, sponsored the publication of Sor Juana’s first volume of collected works in Spain in 1689.2 These accomplishments were not only remarkable in and of themselves, she also had to overcome both institutionalized sexism and an illegitimate birth.

Born in the Mexican heartland of the viceroyalty of New Spain, Juana Inés Ramírez de Asbaje and her two full sisters were the illegitimate daughters of Isabel Ramírez and a father hidden in the shadows, who may have been Pedro Manuel de Asbaje or Friar F. (or H.) de Asvaje. The little girl lived with her mother and sisters in her grandfather Pedro Ramírez’s house until his death in 1656, but she still was a girl without a legally recognized father in a culture that focused on male heads of households as the basic social and political agents. Though women of the seventeenth-century Spanish empire could inherit property and sell goods in the marketplace, “Women were under patria potestad (subject to their father’s will) until they were twenty-five years old, when they gained complete personal independence if they remained unmarried.”3 And if they entered a convent, as Juana Inés did, to escape being under a husband’s will, there was still constant pressure that they should submit to the spiritual guidance of a male confessor. Even the revered founder of the discalced Carmelites, immortalized by Bernini, St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), had to go through the motions of submitting to a priest.4 In La Dorotea (1632), the influential author Lope de Vega did present a list of women who excelled in intelligence, fidelity and arms, but most women were portrayed by a humble Dorotea as “apprehensive” and overly emotional, “a reservoir of tears.”5 In this authoritarian world, Juana identified with the women who excelled. By her own account, unable to limit her thirst for knowledge, Juana Inés Ramírez de Asbaje pursued a transdisciplinary quest to embrace a complicated cosmos.

At about the age of three, out of affection for one of her older sisters and out of what she later described as “mischief,” young Juana Inés followed her sibling to a girls’ grammar school. There she was taught to read unbeknownst to her mother. She feared punishment for her accomplishment, but she was “inflamed with the desire to know how to read,” and with her teacher’s compliance, she went on to impress her mother with her precociousness.6 From then on, she would struggle to come to terms with her society’s discomfort with precocious females. Even after being told that girls were excluded from the centers of male public performance, including university, she refused to give up a skill with which she had triumphed. She would be unable to reconcile her conception of self with the one her society imposed upon her. Struggling throughout her life to resolve this tension, she was often torn between self-criticism and defiance, and near the end of her life in her autobiographical “Response to Sor Filotea de la Cruz,” written in 1691, she reflected:

When later, being six or seven, and having learned how to read and write, along with all the other skills in needlework and household arts that girls learn, it came to my attention that in Mexico City there were Schools, and a University, in which one studied the sciences. The moment I heard this, I began to plague my mother with insistent and importunate pleas: she should dress me in boy’s clothing and send me to Mexico City to live with relatives, to study and be tutored at the University. She would not permit it, and she was wise, but I assuaged my disappointment by reading the many and varied books belonging to my grandfather, and there were not enough punishments, nor reprimands, to prevent me from reading….

I began to study Latin grammar… and so intense was my concern that though among women (especially a woman in the flower of her youth) the natural adornment of one’s hair is held in such high esteem, I cut off mine to the breadth of some four to six fingers, measuring the place it had reached, and imposing upon myself the condition that if by the time it had again grown to that length I had not learned such and such a thing I had set for myself to learn while my hair was growing, I would again cut it off as punishment…. (A)nd in fact I did cut it in punishment for such stupidity: for there seemed to me no cause for a head to be adorned with hair and naked of learning—which was the more desired embellishment.7

Given her society’s assumption that men were naturally more rational than women, she began to associate the physical attributes of a woman, in particular her hair, as a hindrance to her learning, even acting out the belief that her character could be altered by her appearance.8 This concern for control of her body may have had even deeper motivations than those of self-discipline. The exclusion of girls from certain forums had been spelled out for Juana Inés, contrary to her own experience of a girl’s ability to compete in that forum. At the same time, it must have been through personal experience that she came to fear that being a girl left one vulnerable to even more dire consequences. It was not just social tradition that posed a barrier to women in achieving their ambitions:

(I)f a father desires to provide his daughters with more than ordinary learning, he is forced by necessity, and by the absence of wise elder women, to bring men to teach the skills of reading, writing, counting, the playing of musical instruments, and other accomplishments, from which no little harm results, as is experienced every day in doleful examples of perilous association, because through the immediacy of contact and the intimacy born from the passage of time, what one may never have thought possible is easily accomplished. For which reason many prefer to leave their daughters unpolished and uncultured rather than to expose them to such notorious peril as that of familiarity with men….9

Juana Inés would have to use all her skills to find a community that supported her intellectual development and to find a place where she felt safe. She would befriend both men and women who provided her with some security against a demeaning patriarchal system and its threats.

Despite her illegitimate birth and criticism of cultural norms, Juana Inés had many allies in life, and from diverse individuals, she constructed a working network. Through the introduction of relatives who lived in Mexico City and through her own talents, between 1664 and her entry into the convent, Juana served as a lady-in-waiting to the Vireina Leonor Carreto, Marquesa de Mancera at the Mexico City court of Antonio Sebastián de Toledo, Marqués de Mancera, the Spanish viceroy, or governor, of New Spain. Remarking it was her recollection of knowledge and not her own wit that won her admiration, she described how she had never really been invited to participate in public dialogue. Instead she was expected to pay homage to the men who were: “… so that when I came to the city many marveled, not so much at my natural wit, as at my memory, and at the amount of learning I had mastered at an age when many had scarcely learned to speak well.”10 This is corroborated by the Jesuit Diego Calleja, who wrote a biographical, almost hagiographical, account of her to be published in Spain with the third volume of her collected works in 1700. He never met her in person, but he maintained a correspondence with her and knew several of her intimates, including the Marqués de Mancera. According to Calleja, she drew attention because of the cleverness she gained through careful study and through the “good looks” that nature had granted her.11 She had been invited to groom the heroes of intellectual conversation at court, to flatter her superiors. Having been born in 1648 or 1652, she was between twelve or sixteen when this task was set for her by her diligence in study. Although young, she was not willing to be defined by the prevailing social conventions. Her social skills and intellect were so exceptional that she found ways to circumvent the limitations placed on women. Her genuine fascination with others resulted in life-long friendships—and beyond, to the generations that have found her story in history books:

…I heard nothing without meditation, even in the most minute and imperfect things; because as there is no creature, however lowly, in which one cannot recognize that God made me, there is none that does not astound reason, if properly meditated on. Thus, I reiterate, I saw and admired all things; so that even the very persons with whom I spoke, and the things they said, were cause for a thousand mediations. Whence the variety of genius and wit, being all of a single species? Which the temperaments and hidden qualities that occasioned such variety?12

Though popular at the Mancera court, in an effort to maintain as much control of her life and resources as possible, she decided not to marry. Instead, she made the difficult decision to enter the Hieronymite convent of Santa Paula in 1669. It is at this time that Juana Inés Ramírez de Asbaje took her name as a nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz:

And so I entered the religious order, knowing that life there entailed certain conditions… most repugnant to my nature; but given the total antipathy I felt for marriage, I deemed convent life the least unsuitable and the most honorable I could elect if I were to insure my salvation…. I believed that I was fleeing myself, but—wretch that I am!— I brought with me my worst enemy, my inclination, which I do not know whether to consider a gift or a punishment from Heaven….13

Substantial dowries were required to enter a leading Mexico City convent. Through friends at court, Juana Inés raised 3000 pesos that would serve as her dowry and ongoing endowment to maintain her at Santa Paula.14 As was conventional then at an elite convent, she was able to manage her own funds, securing a comfortable situation. Like other Hieronymite nuns, she owned her own two-storied, multi-chambered, apartment-like cell. She invested money in the convent’s farms, and, in the course of her life, her belongings included jewels, musical instruments, scholarly books, and what Calleja described as “mathematical instruments.”15 She secured a great deal of autonomy for a woman in the seventeenth century.

The need for control of resources is profound in women, as in men. It is part of an evolutionary legacy that Sor Juana would understand and appreciate. She lived with a great deal of internal conflict regarding her inclinations, being flattered and admired as exceptional because of her intelligence and independence, she was, at the same time, made to feel abnormal. But she was not abnormal and the “ciencia” that fascinated her has now continued to prove she was right.16 Important to the progression of Sor Juana’s ideals of feminism has been the reevaluation of animal behavior by contemporary ethologists and biologists. By observing the expression of individualism in other species, what it means to be “female” has been expanded, reinforcing Sor Juana’s belief in the capabilities of women and the connection of all human beings to nature. While sometimes tormented by human nature, Sor Juana also felt wonder at the genius and wit of our species, believing those qualities to be drawn from a divine natural diversity—“Of qualities of angel, plant and beast.”

The beasts most closely related to us are chimpanzees. And while they have their own unique behaviors and do not develop complicated symbolic cultures, they still show us where many of our own behaviors come from, including feminism. In the chimpanzee community at Gombe, Tanzania, no individual exhibited the drive to self-expression better than the sterile Gigi (d. January 1994). When describing Gigi in her 1986 book The Chimpanzees of Gombe, Jane Goodall wrote, “Gigi’s behavior is very much like that of a male. She is large and strong for a female, and often aggressive.” A more accomplished hunter than most female chimpanzees, Gigi was observed participating in mixed hunting parties between 1974 and 1981, capturing ten of the twelve prey animals taken by females. Tenacious in maintaining possession of that prey despite the assaults of adult males, on one occasion Gigi fended off multiple assaults by two males with only nominal assistance from a male named Goblin. She also begged successfully for meat taken by males.17 She had a history of actively turning sexual suitors away, and Goodall has written, “In one respect Gigi’s sexual popularity is hard to understand, since she often pulls away from her male partners before the completion of the sexual act.”18 Whereas “the adult male typically takes the initiative in sexual encounters with adult females,” Gigi exhibited a great deal of control over choosing her sexual partners, even showing a preference for precocious young male chimpanzees. Indeed, it may be significant to note that while young males are extremely intent on dominating females in order to establish their first standing in the male hierarchy, Gigi was “quite capable of putting most adolescent males firmly in their places.”19 Many ethologists have since recorded their observation of the individualism and social influence of females. The constant dominance behavior of stronger males is countered in a variety of ways so that females and offspring are able to compete and flourish.20

Among chimpanzees at Gombe, the site studied by Goodall and others since 1960, adult female chimpanzees hold core areas of some 2 km2 where they forage. Anne Pusey, Jennifer Williams and Jane Goodall have concluded, “Infants of low-ranking females showed much higher mortality than those of high-ranking females over the first 7 years of life…. High rank may confer better access to food, both by enabling a female to acquire and maintain a core area of high quality and by affording her priority of access to food in overlapping areas.”21 Resources and territorial issues are crucial to females as a matter of survival for them and their offspring, and they must compete vigorously, just as males do for rank and alliances. But unlike males, they do not need to compete for sex partners.

Being pursued for sex has not been a resource problem for females in our evolution—male interest in the female body suffices. In fact, without the unusual physical strength exhibited by the chimpanzee Gigi, women have had to develope other strategies to ward off unwanted sexual pursuit. The challenge women face in controlling not only territory, but their bodies, is deeply rooted in our primate evolution. Sexuality and the control of female bodies appear to be real issues among chimpanzees. According to Jane Goodall, male chimpanzees “prefer each other’s company, except when females are in estrus.”22 Then they will share their meat from a hunt with the estrous female, groom her, and otherwise give her attention normally granted the alpha male or immediate male allies, but this does not mean that estrous females will necessarily receive more meat than male allies.23 This is extremely problematic for the female. Although she gets attention during estrus, she does not gain enough political power to control her sex life without harassment and interference by males competing for dominance. Thus, “an adult male who has established a possessive relationship with a female is likely to intervene aggressively if a subordinate male tries to copulate with her.”24 According to Jane Goodall, “Almost always, unless he is crippled or very old, an adult male can coerce an unwilling female into copulating with him and he can, at least on some occasions, force her to embark on a lengthy consortship.”25 When rejection of sexual interaction seems imminent, aggressive swaggering displays and actual beatings become options for males. In response, females may cry for help from more dominant males who may then provide “rescue” from an unwanted suitor.26 Alliance building is as important a source of protection for females as males.

In a more recently evolved species of chimpanzee, the bonobo, females have developed more cooperative counter strategies in response to male aggression and management. While male chimpanzees and their alphas “invariably” take control of especially valued foods when females are present, “among bonobos either sex can be owner.”27 Bonobo expert Takayoshi Kano has noted that unlike the common chimpanzee, where males generally dominate females, among bonobo chimpanzees, “Several examples have been reported in which a male provoked a female and a group of females cooperated in a counterattack.”28 Female coalition building is a common strategy among many primate species, offering protection from male violence and allowing for more control of resources.29

Sor Juana chose the convent of Santa Paula as the best option to secure her own territory with the help of a female coalition. She had no tolerance for being viewed as a sex object. Reprimands of aggressive and predatory behavior in men often appear in her writing. In a passage from her poem which begins “Hombres necios que acusáis,” she describes “Misguided men, who will chastise/ a woman when no blame is due,/ oblivious that it is you/ who prompted what you criticize….”30 Not only did Sor Juana establish verbal dominance, she took control of resources and territory; established social status; and become a member of a coalition. She excelled at building alliances, and Electa Arenal writes, “Sor Juana presided as might a philosopher queen over a salon.”31

She developed alliances and affiliations, employing a strategy that Shelley E. Taylor and a team of UCLA researchers have described as “tend-and-befriend.” According to Taylor and her team, human females evolved under conditions where they had to protect themselves and dependent offspring from predators and from human males who threatened them with “rape, assault, homicide, and abuse of offspring.” In contemporary studies, “women are more likely than men to choose to affiliate in response to a laboratory challenge,” and in an extensive study of social networks, “women were 30% more likely than men to have provided some type of support in response to network stressors, including economic and work-related difficulties, interpersonal problems, death, and negative health events.”32 While women are competitive, they are more likely than men to be sympathetic. The tend-and-befriend strategy may be based on biological tendencies. Commenting on brain imaging studies for a New York Times article entitled “When Bad People Are Punished, Men Smile (but Women Don’t)” Dr. Tania Singer explained, “Men ‘expressed more desire for revenge and seemed to feel satisfaction when unfair people were given what they perceived as deserved physical punishment’.”33 When men watched others being given electric shocks, M.R.I scans showed the brain’s empathy centers remained dull while reward centers lit up. Women watching the punishment showed no response in centers associated with pleasure.34

Women are not only at a disadvantage when competing for power because of the greater physical strength of men, they must contend with male tendencies toward more aggressive and dominant behavior. Relative structural and functional sex differences are as evident in the brain as in the body. Many contemporary medical studies using brain imaging have revealed women use their brain differently, and sometimes more of it. In a study conducted by Drs. Bennett and Sally Shaywitz, brain imaging indicated women used both sides of their brains while brain activity in males tended to be more asymmetrical: “During phonological tasks, brain activation in males is lateralized to the left inferior frontal gyrus regions; in females the pattern of activation is very different, engaging more diffuse neural systems that involve both the left and right inferior frontal gyrus.”35 In another listening study conducted by Drs. Phillips, Lurito, Matthews and others, “Women demonstrate a higher degree of bilateral language representation in temporal lobe regions than do men during passive listening. These findings, combined with the variable results of prior functional MR imaging language studies of sex differences, suggest that they may be task specific.”36

As in Sor Juana’s time, researchers continue to argue about sex differences in intelligence. Today, instead of using arguments from intellectual and biblical authorities like Aristotle and Genesis, scientists weigh, measure and perform imaging on brains. But the real world consequences of these brain differences are evident in the fact that, as Sor Juana demonstrated in the seventeenth century, girls can and do outperform boys in intellectual tasks. Perhaps projecting the vengeance men are more prone to enjoy, the thought of women being in control in the seventeenth century was envisioned with fear by Tirso de Molina (d. 1648) in a play about a Spanish confrontation with Amazon women in the New World: “Here at the ultimate ends of the earth, beauty armed obstructs our valor, and imperiled by such bellicose fortune, we confront a republic that alone fails to accept men, forming squadrons from the weaker sex to draw Spanish blood. Here nature has altered the order that the whole world has kept (turned the world upside down) in so much as exploits are joined to beauty”37 Sor Juana herself was once ordered by an abbess to refrain from reading, which she did for some three months.38 The possibility of “Amazon” intelligence in women still continues to cause alarm. In a Newsweek article entitled “The Trouble with Boys,” Peg Tyre writes:

By almost every benchmark, boys across the nation and in every demographic group are falling behind. In elementary school, boys are two times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and twice as likely to be placed in special-education classes. High-school boys are losing ground to girls on standardized writing tests. The number of boys who said they didn’t like school rose 71 percent between 1980 and 2001, according to a University of Michigan study. Nowhere is the shift more evident than on college campuses. Thirty years ago men represented 58 percent of the undergraduate student body. Now they’re a minority at 44 percent. This widening achievement gap, says Margaret Spellings, U.S. secretary of Education, “has profound implications for the economy, society, families and democracy.”39

Words have the power to create realities. But, before this cultural belief was constructed, quite to the contrary, the ability of females to learn and teach has been fundamental to the success of primate societies. In teaching survival skills, such as nut-cracking with a wooden or stone hammer: “Chimpanzee mothers take an active part in the apprenticeship of their female offspring by either rewarding their attention with nuts or affection or by supplying them with tools.” In the Taï Forest of the Ivory Coast, males, with their greater upper body strength, consumed and ate far fewer nuts than females. The researchers observed that “Males lack concentration while cracking nuts and this makes them so inefficient at Coula-cracking in the trees and Panda-cracking that these techniques are of no interest to them.”40 Having a brain, is not the same as using a brain.

When and if and how a brain is used depends a great deal on the environment. Even if the specter of physical violence is removed and females are allowed to compete, female intelligence is then often obscured by sexuality, which remains a burden for women in the public arena. Always aware of how women were defined primarily by their physical appearance, Sor Juana’s villancicos, or carols, in honor to St. Catherine of Alexandria were performed on November 25, 1691 in the southern city of Oaxaca. One of Sor Juana’s role models in the autobiographical “Response to Sor Filotea,” St. Catherine was martyred after she converted a number of pagan sages to Christianity with her intellectual arguments. Sor Juana wrote for public performance that this woman, created as a rational being by God, and possessing “ciencia divina” or “divine knowledge,” “studied, argued, and taught” only to discover that “Because she is beautiful they envy her, in as far as she is learned they want to emulate her: O what an ancient trait to consider merits as faults.”41 Reaction to women’s physical appearance is constantly being interjected, no matter what the circumstances, and by both sexes. Women express jealousy, while men express sexual interest and pose the possibility of physical threat. The attention to beauty becomes a dilemma that women must constantly factor into their public and private lives, a distraction that distorts the perception of a woman’s intelligence. Human cultures have experimented with a number of traditions that welcome or repress the public exposure of the female body—from the burqa to Madonna (both the religious and pop icon). For women in the seventeenth century, wearing the habit of a nun was one option.

Convent life diminished evidence of sexuality and also provided a safe home range. Nuns could choose which men had access to the convent through their own female gatekeepers and had some ability to control their own resources. A nun could even hire and fire her confessor on occasion.42 A female coalition guarded resources and provided protection. Shielded from “perilous” associations with men while in service to the church, Sor Juana maintained her friendships with viceregal and noble society. Through these relationships she found opportunities to express her talents and intellect. Aside from governing viceroys and powerful vireinas, Sor Juana also sought out leading intellectuals with whom to exchange ideas—such as Juan Ignacio de Castorena y Ursúa, rector of the University of Mexico, Bishop of the Yucatan, and editor of the first newspaper in New Spain, La Gazeta de México. A lifelong defender of Sor Juana, he was pivotal in having the third posthumous volume of her works published in 1700.43 She was also often visited by the illustrious and controversial scholar, Carlos Sigüenza y Góngora, who remained loyal to Sor Juana throughout her life, and once praised her encyclopedic erudition as something that had only previously been matched by history’s learned women as a group.44

On the other hand, some like her confessor Antonio Núñez de Miranda, tried to restrain her intellect and argued that she should be more submissive to male authority. Núñez de Miranda was her spiritual advisor upon entering the convent, but she dismissed him in 1682. He was later reinstated in the 1690s, perhaps to clamp down on Sor Juana after she criticized a sermon by the Jesuit Antonio de Vieira who was greatly admired by the Archbishop of Mexico. This Athenagoric Letter was published by the Bishop of Puebla, Fernandez de Santa Cruz, at his own expense in 1690. He included a preface that he wrote himself, but under the female pseudonym, Sor Filotea de la Cruz of Puebla, in which he toned down the arguments Sor Juana made in the text, stating:

It is true St. Paul says that women must not teach; but he does not order women to not study in order to understand; because he only wanted to prevent the risk of pomposity in our sex, always given to vanity.45

This misdirection of her arguments led to a vigorous clarification by Sor Juana in the “Response to Sor Filotea.” In her response, Sor Juana attacks the “Sor Filotea” preface by noting that while Paul argued that women should keep silent in churches, in his letter to Titus, he cited “aged women in like manner, in holy attire… teaching well.” (Titus 2:3). She also then goes on to chide men “who merely for being men believe they are wise.”46 Skilled in co-opting arguments for her own ends, she justified her right to study secular subjects as a means of strengthening her own faith by enhancing her understanding of theological matters: “How, without Logic, could I be apprised of the general and specific way in which the Holy Scripture is written?”47 A common enough defense for male intellectuals, one even used by the most influential Scholastic theologians and university professors of her culture, Sor Juana dared to appropriate this argument for secular study and turn it back on her critics.48 She further challenged them with her thoughtful research of female worthies and intellectuals to match the standard male histories of warriors and scholars. She was not, in fact, alone. Individual women had not only demonstrated their ability to compete with men intellectually throughout time, they had also demonstrated their desire to do so. From Biblical, Greco-Roman, early Christian, and her contemporary early modern sources, Sor Juana lists some forty-two cases of women exemplary in intellect and leadership:

Because I find a Debbora administering the law, both military and political, and governing a people among whom there were many learned men. I find a most wise Queen of Saba, so learned that she dares to challenge with hard questions the wisdom of the greatest of all wise men, without being reprimanded for doing so, but, rather, as a consequence, to judge unbelievers.


If I again turn to the Gentiles, the first I encounter are the Sibyls, those women chosen by God to prophesy the principal mysteries of our Faith, and with learned and elegant verses that surpass admiration…. I see a Zenobia, Queen of the Palmyrans, as wise as she was valiant…. An Hypatia, who taught astrology, and studied many years in Alexandria.49

Sor Juana even extolled woman’s mechanical skill in a challenge to Aristotle, the philosopher who still reigned as the supreme secular authority in the Spanish Empire’s universities, dominated as they were by Scholasticism. She wrote, “And what shall I tell you, lady, of the natural secrets I have discovered while cooking? … I often say, when observing these trivial details: had Aristotle prepared victuals, he would have written more.”50 Observations in the kitchen led Juana to the practical knowledge that “an egg holds together and fries in butter or in oil, but, on the contrary, in syrup shrivels into shreds” and that “a drop or two of water in which a quince or other bitter fruit has been soaked” will keep sugar in a liquid state.51

Her observations concerning cooking are preceded by a statement that she looked at nothing “without giving it further examination.” Sor Juana relied first and foremost on her personal experience with reality, rather than the prevailing social or theological construction of that reality. She needed to know for herself exactly how a top spins:

Once in my presence two young girls were spinning a top and scarcely had I seen the motion and the figure described, when I began, out of this madness of mine, to meditate on the effortless motus of the spherical form, and how the impulse persisted even when free and independent of its cause—for the top continued to dance even at some distance from the child’s hand, which was the causal force. And not content with this, I had flour brought and sprinkled about, so that as the top danced one might learn whether these were perfect circles it described with its movement; and I found that they were not, but, rather, spiral lines that lost their circularity as the impetus declined.52

Frederick Luciani argues that her interest in spirals was paralleled in the thought of the early modern era’s scientific luminaries:

Spiral shapes also appeared in the astronomical literature of the seventeenth century. In the preceding century, Tycho Brahe had developed a system of spiral movement to account for the apparent retrogression of the planets. Copernican astronomers like Kepler recalled and illustrated that system in order to challenge it according to the new heliocentric model…. The spiral figured prominently in acoustic and music theory: it is omnipresent in Kircher’s treatise Musurgia universalis, a text that Sor Juana surely knew and that may have influenced her own musical treatise El caracol, now lost, whose title alludes to the idea that “es una línea espiral,/ no un círculo, la Armonía” [Harmony is a spiral line, not a circle].53

With inquisitorial censorship limiting freedom of expression in academia, not all Spaniards embraced grand quests for knowledge that might become dangerous, but Juana Inés did. An avid reader of the Jesuit thinker Athanasius Kircher (ca. 1602-1680), Sor Juana, as a theologian and natural philosopher herself, also exhibited his general baroque-era themes of “Catholic syncretism.” According to Octavio Paz, Kircher’s thought combined “Neoplatonic hermeticism inherited from the Renaissance” and “new astronomical and physical concepts and discoveries,” and Sor Juana used his writings as “a window through which she could view the most daring speculations and the discoveries of the new science without the danger of being accused of heresy.”54 However, she went beyond this Baroque transdisciplinarity to argue that human experience and natural philosophy were being constrained by verbally and sometimes violently omitting women from the quest for understanding. On one level, her thought reflected general seventeenth-century trends that included Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) with his pursuit of magic, natural philosophy and theology. However, the very act of publicly mastering and arguing the most sophisticated epistemologies of her time defied many underlying intellectual assumptions. In this, as noted by Stephanie Merrim, Sor Juana can be compared to the Duchess of Newcastle Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), who, through writings like Observations on Experimental Philosophy and attendance at a meeting of male scientists of the Royal Society in May of 1667, challenged scientists, or natural philosophers as they were then called, to accept women as partners in the quest to understand nature.55

Octavio Paz’s compelling biography recounts a classic tragedy in his story of Sor Juana, a woman whose hubris led to her downfall. His portrayal of Sor Juana describes her 1691 “Response to Sor Filotea,” a defense of a woman’s right to reason across disciplines, as a final stand before silencing herself until her death due to pressure placed upon her by a patriarchal church hierarchy. Her austere confessor Núñez de Miranda and the misogynistic Archbishop of Mexico Aguiar y Seijas finally triumphed according to Paz, and “Sor Juana had fallen completely under the domination of Núñez de Miranda and Aguiar y Seijas….”56 But that account has been challenged. Literary scholar Electa Arenal has a different perspective on the fate of this brilliant and controversial nun, writing about her success in establishing and defending the influential position she achieved:

Although she suffered persecution and outrage, and was pressured or convinced to greatly modify her worldly intellectual life about two years before she died, she was not under direct threat of punishment by the Inquisition; the Catholic Church had a less drastic mechanism for instilling compliance. Nor did she die in an ascetic cell while nursing her sister nuns during an epidemic as has been claimed since publication of the first biography by the Spanish Jesuit Diego Calleja (1700). An inventory of her belongings when she died, made public in 1995, lists books, art works, and other possessions.57

As disclosed by Elías Trabulse, the inventories of the nun’s cell revealed 180 books and 15 bundles of secular and religious writings by her when she died.58 Though she may have given up her original library on the twenty-fifth anniversary of her entering the convent, she was rebuilding it, even as she continued to make financial transactions and remained the convent’s accountant until her death.59 Often sickly herself, she died before the elderly archbishop while she may have been hoping to outlive him and resurface with new work. In effect, she did posthumously since the final volume of her collected works was published in 1700 in Spain with Calleja’s attempt to transform her into the penitent saint that she never was.

Arenal challenges the myth that aggressive women are doomed to be rejected. The ability of aggressive females to compete for and win respect and position has not been the stuff of tragedies, but of ordinary human history, a very natural legacy of our primate past. Sor Juana was never completely persuaded to defy her own nature, but did defy the construction of culture. Her insistence on doing things her way, even when contrary to social norms, demonstrates the constant tension between nature and nurture in human society. Reflected in her own internal shifts between self-confidence and doubt, she described life as an experience of both balance and imperfection—of transcendence and immanence. In her epic poem “El Sueño,” published in Spain in 1692, Sor Juana’s soul, entering a dream state and freed from its physical limitations, finally experiences the whole of nature—as much under the auspices of the moon goddess Diana as God. With ranks and earthly hierarchies dissolved by sleep she compares the “roughest homespun cloth with fine brocade” and imagines the heavens and foreign lands. Diana, the dream king Morpheus and darkness create the shadows that allow the flight of nocturnal birds and bats by night, foreshadowing the emotional flight of Sor Juana’s soul in her dream. However, both the soul and the Moon Diana flee at the end before a merciless male Sun and its reestablishment of a hierarchy that castigates the Moon, Queen of all the Earth though she may be. Juana is once again in a complex world, caught in a balancing of scales:

…Nature lifts and lowers
one, and then the other, of her pans,
distributing her several chores—now
restful leisure, now gainful activity—
on the imbalanced balance with which she
rules the world’s complex machinery….60

Sor Juana created a baroque consilience that included man and nature, women and science. In his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, the biologist Edward O. Wilson writes “The dream of intellectual unity first came to full flower in the original Enlightenment….”61 He defines consilience as “the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.”62 But it was not just in the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment that attempts to reconcile knowledge have occurred. There is a continual process of focus and reconciliation in the human mind and in human culture. As communal knowledge grows, ways of unifying knowledge have been evident long before the Enlightenment, in telling stories around campfires, in the Library of Alexandria, and in medieval universities. The mind naturally combines information from the senses into a consistent world view, but even the human mind has limits as to what can be integrated. The creation of civilization might actually be defined as a process of deconstructing consilience as individuals began to focus on unique skills in art, science, and spirituality. Perhaps by virtue of being excluded from competition with men in singular fields of study, perhaps by virtue of having a female brain, Sor Juana was more able to see common ground across disciplines and value systems. At the same time there was a recognition during the seventeenth-century Baroque period that order was not simple and was revealed through science, technology and natural philosophy as well as theology. According to Daniel Heiple, Spanish Baroque poetry of the seventeenth century used mechanical and scientific imagery to invoke the complexity and tensions in a world that was still seen as ordered under God.63 This view evolved from a Renaissance sensibility that man, the microcosm, reflected in his physical makeup, behaviors, and choices—the entirety of Nature. Sor Juana’s synthesis “Of qualities of angel, plant, and beast” was there already in Nicholas of Cusa, Pico della Mirandola, and Paracelsus.64 Sor Juana’s constant self-doubt arose out of a conflict between society and self. The source of her inclinations and the patriarchy she challenged are both revealed and in the study of evolution. Her intellectual skill was sometimes demonized, but through her observations and writings she held fast to her female nature and the evolutionary truth she perceived through a Baroque veil. Sor Juana used her extraordinary mastery of human language, to argue for a female centered cultural construction, using the social strategies long employed by other female beings in the natural world.


1. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, “El Sueño,” in Poems, Protest, and a Dream, trans. Margaret Sayers Peden (New York and London: Penguin Books, 1997), 114-15. Also Obras completas de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, 4 vols., ed. Alfonso Méndez Plancarte and Alberto G. Salceda (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1951-57), 1: 352. Henceforth OC.

2. Octavio Paz, Sor Juana or, the Traps of Faith, trans. Margaret Sayers Peden (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1988), 65, 86-88, 266; Pamela Kirk, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Religion, Art, and Feminism (New York: Continuum, 1998), 17-23.

3. Paz, 65, 86; Asunción Lavrin, “In Search of the Colonial Woman in Mexico: the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in Latin American Women: Historical Perspectives, ed. Asunción Lavrin (Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 1978), 30, 41-42.

4. Jodi Bilinkoff, The Avila of Saint Teresa: Religious Reform in a Sixteenth-CenturyCity(Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1989), 116-23, 133, 145-47.

5. See Lope de Vega, La Dorotea, ed. Edwin S. Morby (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), Act 1, scene 5, p. 95.

6. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, “Response to the Most Illustrious Poetess Sor Filotea de la Cruz,” in Poems, Protest, and a Dream, 13; “Respuesta de la poetisa a muy ilustre Sor Filotea de la Cruz,” OC 4: 445.

7. Ibid., 15; OC 4: 445-46.

8. On men being “more rational” and its consequences in the exercise of power, see Mary Elizabeth Perry, Gender and Disorder in Early Modern Seville (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 7-8.

9. Juana Inés de la Cruz, “Response to Sor Filotea,” in Poems, Protest, and a Dream, 53; OC 4: 464-5.

10. Ibid., 15; OC 4: 446.

11. Diego Calleja, S.J., Vida de Sor Juana, ed. Ermilo Abreu Gómez (Toluca: Instituto Mexiquense de Cultura, 1996), 16; Paz, 89, 129-30.

12. Juana Inés de la Cruz, “Response to Sor Filotea,” in Poems, Protest, and a Dream, 39-41; OC 4: 458.

13. Ibid., 15-17; OC 4: 446-47.

14. Asunción Lavrin, “Unlike Sor Juana? The Model Nun in the Religious Literature of Colonial Mexico,” in Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, ed. Stephanie Merrim (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), 62; Paz, 108, 118.

15. Paz, 120, 128, 246; Calleja, 24.

16. Sor Juana’s use of the word “science” was medieval and Scholastic rather than modern. It meant “knowledge,” with theology being the “queen of the sciences,” but it also included applied or practical knowledge that might involve experimentation with forces operating in the physical world. F. C. Copleston, Aquinas (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1955), 73-80; David F. Noble, A World without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 212-13; Elías Trabulse, “Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz y la ciencia perdida,” in Cuadernos de Sor Juana: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz y el siglo xvii, ed. Margarita Peña (Mexico City: Coordinación de Difusión Cultural, Dirección de Literatura/ UNAM, 1995), 16-19; Mauricio Beuchot, Sor Juana, una filosofía barroca (Toluca: Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, 1999), 61-69.

17. Jane Goodall, The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior (Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986), 304-11, 66-67.

18. Jane Goodall, Through a Window: Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990), 150

19. Goodall, Chimpanzees of Gombe, 355; Goodall, Through a Window, 153.

20. Frans de Waal, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes, revised ed. (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 44-50, 53-60, 107-08; Frans de Waal, Peacemaking among Primates (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1989), 22, 26, 42-43, 48-57; Yasuyuki Muroyama and Yukimaru Sugiyama, “Grooming Relationships in Two Species of Chimpanzees,” in Chimpanzee Cultures, ed. Richard Wrangham, W. C. McGrew, Frans B. M. de Waal, Paul Heltne and Linda A. Marquardt (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1994), 169-80; Kate C. Baker and Barbara B. Smuts, “Social Relationships of Female Chimpanzees: Diversity between Captive Social Groups,” in Chimpanzee Cultures, 227-42. Also see especially Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999).

21. Anne Pusey, Jennifer Williams, and Jane Goodall, “The Influence of Dominance Rank on the Reproductive Success of Female Chimpanzees,” Science 277: 5327 (8 August 1997): 829-30.

22. Goodall, Chimpanzees of Gombe, 149.

23. John C. Mitani and David P. Watts, “Demographic Influences on the Hunting Behavior of Chimpanzees,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 109: 4 (August 1999): 444-45.

24. Goodall, Chimpanzees of Gombe, 326-27.

25. Ibid., 481.

26. Ibid.; Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996), 143-46.

27. Wrangham and Peterson, 208.

28. Takayoshi Kano, The Last Ape: Pygmy Chimpanzee Behavior and Ecology, trans. Evelyn Ono Vineberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 188.

29. Barbara Smuts, “Male Aggression against Women: An Evolutionary Perspective,” Human Nature 3: 1 (1992): 6, 13-24.

30. Juana Inés de la Cruz, “A Philosophical Satire,” in Poems, Protest, and a Dream, 149; “Sátira filosófica,” OC 1: 228.

31. Electa Arenal, “The Convent as Catalyst for Autonomy: Two Hispanic Nuns of the Seventeenth Century,” in Women in Hispanic Literature: Icons and Fallen Idols, ed. Beth Miller (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1983), 150.

32. Shelley E. Taylor, Laura Cousino Klein, Brian P. Lewis, Tara L. Gruenewald, Regan A. R. Gurung, and John A. Updegraff, “Biobehavioral Responses to Stress in Females: Tend-and-Befriend, Not Fight-or-Flight,” Psychological Review 107: 3 (2000): 417-18.

33. Elisabeth Rosenthal, “When Bad People Are Punished, Men Smile (but Women Don’t),” The New York Times, January 19, 2006. Accesssed online March 23, 2007 at

34. Tania Singer, Ben Seymour, John P. O’Doherty, Klaas E. Stephan, Raymond J. Dolan, and Chris D. Frith, “Empathic Neural Responses Are Modulated by the Perceived Fairness of Others,” Nature 439: 7075 (26 January 2006): 466-69.

35. Bennett A. Shaywitz, Sally E. Shaywitz, Kenneth R. Pugh, R. Todd Constable, Pawel Skudiarski, Robert K. Fulbright, Richard A. Bronen, Jack M. Fletcher, Donald P. Shankweiler, Leonard Katz, and John C. Gore, “Sex Differences in the Functional Organization of the Brain for Language,” Nature 373: 6515 (16 February 1995): 607.

36. Michael D. Phillips, MD, Mark J. Lowe, PhD, Joseph T. Lurito, MD, PhD, Mario Dzemidzic, PhD and Vincent P. Matthews, MD, “Temporal Lobe Activation Demonstrates Sex-based Differences during Passive Listening,” Radiology 220: 1 (July 2001): 202-07. Accessed online March 23, 2007 at

37. Tirso de Molina, Amazonas en las Indias, in Obras dramáticas completas, ed. Blanca de los Ríos, 3 vols. (Madrid: Aguilar, 1946-58), 3: 700.

38. Juana Inés de la Cruz, “Response to Sor Filotea,” in Poems, Protest, and a Dream, 39; OC 4: 458.

39. Peg Tyre, “The Trouble with Boys,” Newsweek (January 30, 2006). Accessed online March 23, 2007 at

40. Christophe Boesch and Hedwige Boesch, “Sex Differences in the Use of Natural Hammers by Wild Chimpanzees: A Preliminary Report,” Journal of Human Evolution 10: 7 (November 1981): 592; Christophe Boesch and Hedwige Boesch-Achermann, The Chimpanzees of the TaïForest: Behavioural Ecology and Evolution (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 204-05.

41. Kirk, 143-44; Juana Inés de la Cruz, “Villancicos: Santa Catarina, 1691,” in Obras completas 2: 170-71.

42. Paz, 121; Josefina Muriel, “La Vida conventual femenina de la segunda mitad del siglo xvii y la primera del xviii,” in Memoria del coloquio internacional Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz y el pensamiento novohispano 1995 (Toluca: Instituto Mexiquense de Cultura, 1995), 285-93.
Sor Juana served for a time as assistant gatekeeper at her convent. Elías Trabulse, La Muerte de Sor Juana (Mexico City: Centro de Estudios de Historia de México Condumex, 1999), 50.
While Sor Juana wrote a letter ending her relationship with her confessor Núñez de Miranda in 1682, Teresa of Avila sought out confessors who reinforced the sanctity of her visions. Carta de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz a su confessor: autodefensa espiritual, ed. Aureliano Tapia Méndez (Monterrey: Fomento Cultural Banamex/ Producciones al Voleo el Troquel, 1992); Kirk, 34-36; Bilinkoff, 118-19.

43. Paz, 130-31.

44. Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, Theatro de virtudes políticas, in Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, Obras históricas, ed. José Rojas Garcidueñas, 2nd ed. (Mexico City: Editorial Porrúa, 1960), 246-47.

45. “Carta de Sor Filotea de la Cruz,” in OC 4: 695. Also see Carta de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz a su confessor, 173.

46. Juana Inés de la Cruz, “Response to Sor Filotea,” 49; OC 4: 462.

47. Ibid., 19; OC 4: 447.

48. On the usefulness of Aristotle, logic, and philosophy in the eyes of Scholastic theologians like Thomas Aquinas, see C. H. Lohr, “The Medieval Interpretation of Aristotle,” in The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Disintegration of Scholasticism, 1100-1600, ed. Norman Kretzmann, Anthony Kenny, Jan Pinborg, and Eleonore Stump (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 92-98. For Sor Juana and Thomist influence on her work, see Beuchot, 61-69.

49. Juana Inés de la Cruz, “Response to Sor Filotea,” in Poems, Protest, and a Dream, 45-47; OC 4: 460-61; Nina M. Scott, “‘La Gran Turba de las que merecieron nombres’: Sor Juana’s Foremothers in ‘La Respuesta a Sor Filotea,” in Coded Encounters: Writing, Gender, and Ethnicity in Colonial Latin America, ed. Francisco Javier Cevallos-Candau, Jeffrey A. Cole, Nina M. Scott, and Nicomedes Suárez-Araúz (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), 206-23.

50. Juana Inés de la Cruz, “Response to Sor Filotea,” in Poems, Protest, and a Dream, 43; OC 4: 459-60.

51. Ibid.; OC 4: 459. Also Libro de cocina: selección y transcripción atribuidas a Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, ed. Guadalupe Pérez San Vicente and Josefina Muriel (Toluca: Instituto Mexiquense de Cultura, 1996).

52. Juana Inés de la Cruz, “Response to Sor Filotea,” in Poems, Protest, and a Dream, 41; OC 4: 459.

53. Frederick Luciani, Literary Self-Fashioning in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Presses, 2004), 116.

54. Paz, 176-77. For more on the seventeenth-century Baroque in New Spain, see Irving A. Leonard, Baroque Times in Old Mexico (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1959).

55. Stephanie Merrim, Early Modern Women’s Writing and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1999), 219-20

56. Paz, 464. Though Paz at one point muses, “Was she hoping for better days?”—he concludes by writing, “She relinquished her books to her persecutor, scourged her body, humbled her intelligence, and renounced the gift that was most her own: the word.” See Paz, 470.

57. Electa Arenal, “Cruz, Sor Juana Inés de la,” Encyclopedia of Mexico: History, Society & Culture, ed. Michael S. Werner, 2 vols. (Chicago and London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997), 1:380.

58. Trabulse, La Muerte de Sor Juana, 57-64.

59. Luciani, 152-53; Kirk, 147-49.

60. Juana Inés de la Cruz, “El Sueño,” in Poems, Protest, and a Dream, 87; OC 1: 339. Also see in Poems, Protest, and a Dream, 79, 81, 89, 93, 101, 103; OC 1: 335, 336, 340, 342, 346-7. For literary analysis, see Jacqueline C. Nanfito, El Sueño: Cartographies of Knowledge and the Self (New York: Peter Lang, 2000), 1-44, 89-119; Electa Arenal, “Where Woman Is Creator of the Wor(l)d. Or, Sor Juana’s Discourses on Method,” in Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, 124-41.

61. Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 14.

62. Ibid., 8.

63. Daniel L. Heiple, Mechanical Imagery in Spanish Golden Age Poetry (Madrid: Studia Humanitatis, 1983), vii, 51-56, 71-4.

64. Agnes Heller, Renaissance Man, trans. Richard E. Allen (New York: Schocken Books, 113-14, 386-90, 417-18, 450-52.