Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz: The 17-year-old Who Proved That She Was Smarter Than Mexico’s Experts

Imagine yourself at 17.

Imagine that you’re sitting across 40 of the smartest and most educated people in the country – and next to them is the hand to the king and the Archbishop. In the audience sit the senior members of the court, the Noble family, the clergy, and really, anyone who matters. 

And they’re all there for one reason: to test your knowledge.

Of course, this “test” was not meant to be neutral, but to prove that women couldn’t be educated. 

But to everyone’s amazement, you prove the opposite.

That was Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, one of the smartest and most wonderful women to have ever lived. 

Cruz was born in a small village in “New Spain” (modern-day Mexico, which was then under Spain’s direct colonial rule). Her birth couldn’t foresee that she would grow up to be one of the greatest Hispanic authors of all tome. She the illegitimate daughter born to a Spanish father and a Criolla mother. She was sent to live with relatives, where she developed a lifelong passion for learning. 

She taught herself Latin and local Native languages at a time when women’s education was considered contrary to the Catholic faith and women were expected to be traditional wives. She eagerly read everything in her grandfather’s huge library: Astronomy, Philosophy, literature, and everything else. 

When she was 12, her aunt decided that it was time to send her to Mexico City. Her hope was that Juana would find work in the court of the viceroy (the new governor of Spain) and that there she would find herself a groom.

But Juana had ideas of her own. She caught the eye of the governor’s wife, and quickly became one of her favorite servants. She became well-known in the palace for being one of the most educated and talented people of the time, and her poems became popular. 

Of course, not everyone approved. The governor made her a tempting offer: 40 of his most educated would test her knowledge, and if it would be discovered that she was as smart as people said – she would be hired as his daughter’s tutor, and if not, the public would realize that women and education don’t go together. 

So everyone gathered and witnessed a miracle: a girl of no more than 17 stood in front of the court’s most educated and fluently and wittily answered all questions. 

The governor had no chose but award her the coveted role of the king’s daughter’s teacher. 

Juana didn’t stop there. Her greatest passion was learning. She dedicated her free time to books and the written word, and her love poems quickly became known through the kingdom. Because the world didn’t know how to handle smart single women, she decided to ordain as a nun.

She continued to study and write in the monastery, and it almost cost her her life. 

In 1690, a local priest published her works in response to one of biggest theological commentators, anonymously and without her knowledge. 

It was an insult that the Church and the Inquisition could not take: a woman involved in theological matters? It was against the law. 

The priest published a rebuttal to show that Juana was wrong and to make it clear why women weren’t allowed to engage in theological matters. 

Juana was under a lot of pressure to release a public announcement “admitting her mistake”, but she surprised everyone by doing the opposite: she wrote a long pamphlet that passionately argued that women should be allowed to engage in theology. She wrote that “One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper”, among other things. It was the first feminist pamphlet in America, many years prior to the suffragists and other women’s rights activists.

The Spanish Inquisition wasn’t fond of the pamphlet, to put it mildly. A priest who publicly defended her was arrested, and the only thing in her favor was the public’s appreciation for her poems. One women defended her more than anyone else: the then-Governor’s wife (who replaced the Governor who tested her), and who was her lover for a time. 

Today, she is considered to be one of Mexico’s heroes, and until recently her face decorated the 200 pesos bill. 

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