Jan 20, 2016
Juana Ramirez y Asbaje had a lot going against her from the beginning. She was born to unmarried parents and her father took off after two siblings were born. Being illegitimate with no dowery in 17th century Mexico was not a recipe for an easy life, but Juana had one thing going for her—she was very, very talented. Her overall brainyness was evident form her eariliet childhood. She used to sneak off to go read, in a time and culture when few people of her class and sex were literate, and she even learned to read and compose in Latin.
** But because “boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses,” Juana was also helped out by her intense physical beauty and charm. These helped get her noticed by the king’s representative in Mexico, who patronized her studies.
One of the moments that I’d love most to observe in the Wayback Machine would be when Juana’s patron arranged for her to publically field questions from learned men. I can just imagine it: charming and beautiful Juana, still in her teens, surrounded by greybeards stroking their grey beards as she gives wise, thoughtout and pithy analysis on all sorts of erudite subjects. It must have been a rush for her, as well as the observers.
But remember how Juana had no money, no power and no rich husband? All that braininess and no where in 17th century Mexico to use it. She was convinced to join religious orders, even though she didn’t particularly feel a vocation to it. It was a place where she believed she could read, write and continue to study.
And she did, but the circumstances were not as favorable as they might have been. Sor Juana, as she was now, put together the biggest library in New Spain, complete with musical instruments and scientific objects as well as books and manuscripts. Her own writing, especially her volumes and volumes of poems, were prized by her patrons, one of whom, the Countess de Paredes, brought her writing to Spain, where Sor Juana became a literary sensation. In fact, all across the Spanish colonial world, Sor Juana’s wisdom, wit and skill as a writer were being acclaimed. Except in Mexico.
In Mexico, both the religious authorities directly around and the community as a whole was antsy about Sor Juana’s immense rhetorical prowess. Her astute observation and skill with language, the very things that they were praising in Spain and the other Spanish colonies were being held against her as not becoming a woman, and a nun at that. In fact, Sor Juana’s detailed letter of theological exposition was published without her consent as an example of her brilliance—but also as a criticism of her misusing her time. It’s hard to know how Juana felt when she discovered the publication of “Letter Worthy of Athena,” but we know what she did—she fought back with all of her brilliance and rhetorical power. She wrote a response letter that defended her own education and promoted women’s education in general.
Sor Juana gives examples of the many educated women in both secular and scriptureal accounts: Deborah the prophetess and the Queen of Sheba, Esther who persuaded a king and Aspasia, Pericles’ teacher, and all the Muses. And what about St. Paula and Queen Isabella?
These examples aren’t the only arrows in Sor Juana’s quiver. She also uses the perhaps misogynistic words of Paul the Aposotle against her accusers. Since Paul says that women should be silent in the church, he also describes “The aged women, in like manner, in holy attire, teaching well.” For the commentary Sor Juana cites, it becomes clear that women may not be preachingin public places, but participating in a private sphere where education among and within women is more edifying. As she says “What impropriety can there be if an older woman, learned in letters and holy conversation and customs, should have in her charge the education of young maids?” St. Jerome himself, Sor Jauna points out, thought ti was important to teach young girls the geneology of the prophets and the poetry of the psalms.
In fact, women can teach other women in ways that men can’t. If a male teacher might pressure his young female charges to impropriety, a female teacher can teach her charges more safely. “for if there were no greater risk than the simple indeceny of seating a completely unknown man at the side of a bashful woman[…] even so the modest demanded in interchange with men and in conversation with them gives sufficient cause to forbid this. Indeed, I do not see how the custom of men as teachers of women can be without its dangers” except, she adds quickly “in the strict tribunal of the confessional or the distand teachings of the pulpit or the remote wisdome of books” But for intimate teaching, the kind of one-on-one instruction that makes young people intimate with their tutors, women are best.
And Sor Juana posits that we definitely need teachers. Scriptures are not always very clear because of the metaphoric language used throughout. For example, she says, consider the injunction to “honor the purple” which means “obey the king” Without a tutor, a young girl might not pick up the metonymy and think about redecorating or dressing in purple more often, like the Unicorn Club in Sweet Valley Twins. And it’s not just parts of speech that young women need a tutor for—there are questions of culture and custom in understanding scripture too. Sor Juana points out that the kiss of greeting or the washing of feet or the phrase that a strong woman’s “husband is honorable in the gates” can’t be understood unless someone who has a lot of careful learning can instruct in the correct interpretation. Otherwise, “for lack of any Christian teaching” these “young girls go to perdition.”
Whether this remarkable defense of women’s rhetorical education had any impact on her detractors or whether they responded to it as all is unknown, but she kept learning and kept writing, gaining far more acclaim in Spain than in her native Mexico where pressures on Juana kept mounting. She sold her wonderful library, denounced her old life and died of disease. She was only in her forties.
Sor Juana’s life and writing stand as somber testiments that even talented rhetors who make strong arguments in beautiful language aren’t always successful in winning over their audiences. Like Cicero, who was beheaded despite his rhetorical genius, Sor Juana’s brilliance was unable to save her from her destractors. But also like Cicero, Juana’s reputation has only shone brighter with time, long after her critics have turned all to dust.