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Friday, February 25, 2011

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, "Reply to Sor Filotea de la Cruz"

W. Tucker

The seventeenth century in Mexico knew nothing of equal rights for women. Women devoted their lives to the raising of families and the keeping of homes or instead gave their life to God and became nuns. The thought of an intellectual woman held no appeal to the Mexican masses of that age. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz chose the life of chaste for different reasons then most and led a life of controversy, stemming from her belief in the intellectual rights of women. She vocalizes this choice in her Reply to Sor Filotea de la Cruz. She defends her own right, as well as women’s rights in general, to pursue a life of literature and education in this veiled response to one of her critics.

Rather than become a member of the Mexican upper class, Sister Juana chose to join a convent and become a nun, using her isolation as a means to pursue her secular concerns as well as the religious ones. She earned fame as well as disdain from this choice. One of her detractors, Bishop of Puebla Fernandez de Santa Cruz released her Carta atenagóric, a critique of a religious sermon as well as including his own negative opinion about her choice to focus on her writing. He masked his own involvement by using the pen name Sor Filotea de la Cruz, which explains the title of her response (“de la Cruz” Britannica).

Like the critique of her work, Sister Juana’s response is very secretive but blatantly states her beliefs about her secular rights. She chose to use utmost respect and not to reveal the bishop of Puebla by responding to this “Sor Filotea.” The theme of women’s, specifically her, right to pursue an education and a secular life runs throughout the response. She justifies her theme by speaking of her own great talents and accomplishments as well as citing Biblical figures. At one point she states, “Oh, how much injury might have been avoided in our land if our aged women had been learned…” (de la Cruz 423) referring to Leta. Juana chooses never to be on the attack or spiteful for receiving criticism but shows respect and reverence to “Sor Filotea” throughout the work. As Lisa Nutting from Haverford University states, “Sor Juana enters the dialogue by adhering to the structural formality of Bishop Fernandez de Santa Cruz's letter … Sor Juana also infuses her reply with near excessive proclamations of praise and expressed reverence…” (Nutting 1). Her work firmly supports her push for women to pursue a secular life, while staying within the respectful, masked tone of the Bishop.

Although eventually becoming overwhelmed by the outside criticism (“de la Cruz” Britannica), Sister Juana spend her life standing up for her own right to pursue a secular life which her Reply to Sor Filotea de la Cruz so clearly illustrates. She deftly replied to the bishop of Puebla respectfully all the while inserting her own justifications and Biblical references. Sister Juana left a legacy in the pursuit of intellectual equality between men and women in a difficult time in Mexico.


T. Mince

Sor Juana Inѐs de la Cruz was a well-read, intelligent woman. She left a prominent position as a lady-in-waiting and popular woman of the court to join the convent. While in the order, she wrote poetry for the intellectual elite of Mexico City (Sunshine for Women). In her writings, de la Cruz avoided theological discussions. In 1690, she strayed from this ideal to write a private, critical letter of a Jesuit priest. “During a power struggle between the Bishop of Pedula, her supporter, and the Archbishop of Mexico, the Bishop published her letter (without her permission), possibly hoping to damage one of the Archbishops supporters” (Sunshine for Women). The actions of the Bishop prompted de La Cruz to write Reply to Sor Filotea de la Cruz.

The letter begins with Sor Juana graciously thanking Sor Filotea (the pseudonym the Bishop used) for printing the letter, even though she did not ask her to. She then claims she is not worthy of this, for she is just a lowly nun. She explains why she is ill-equipped to evaluate the Bible and all of the details of theology. This, she states, is why she sticks to secular writings. She has too much respect for the Sacred Word to chance disgracing it with her own words. She goes on to describe why she is not worthy of evaluating scripture, and how she is too ignorant to do anything such as teaching with her writing and studying. This ideology is customary in her time; people were not to be boastful, and were expected to downplay their accomplishments and abilities. de la Cruz employs this tactic throughout her writing; she will explain how important what she is doing is, then follow it up with reasons that she is not fit to make these decisions.

De la Cruz slowly builds her argument with specific examples. When discussing her ideas about women being silent in church, she cites specific women in history who have been outspoken or intelligent. These include women who have been canonized and those who have not. She explains that Saint Paul did not mean that women should be forbidden from studying.
As she explains the benefits of knowledge, she shows readers how vital academia is in everyday life. More specifically, she shows the benefits it holds in theological learning. Some of her examples include “‘And rend your heart and not your garments.’ Is this not a reference to the ceremony in which Hebrews rent their garments as a sign of grief, as did the evil pontiff when he said that Christ had blasphemed? In many scriptures the Apostle writes of succour for widows; did they not refer to the customs of those times? Does not the example of the valiant woman, Her husband is honourable in the gates, allude to the fact that the tribunals of the judges were at the gates of the cities” (Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz 424). She goes on for a full page, in which she expounds her deep knowledge of the Scriptures, and how important her scholarly background is to her understanding of the Word.

One of the most important reasons she cites is the fact that intelligent women can assist in teaching young girls. In their culture, it is unheard of for men to have an intimate relationship such as that of a teacher and a student. To avoid this, many fathers will refuse to allow their daughters to learn. She explains how detrimental this can be: “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, which quandary could be prevented if there were learned elder women, as Saint Paul wished to see, and if the teaching were handed down from one to another, as is the custom with domestic crafts and all other traditional skills” (Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz 423).

As she artfully defends herself throughout the piece, there is one idea that weaves its way through all of her reason; unintelligent people, be they men or women, should not be allowed to study. They should be kept from misusing the Sacred Word, and kept from trying to tell others about it. If someone will read the Bible but not understand and absorb it, they should not be allowed to speak of it. Equality is a great theme of her argument. She is not out there to revolutionize the way the Church feels about women scholars; she is merely there to stand up for them and show that they deserve to study and learn the same as men.


  1. it's amazing how Sor Juana precedes Mary Wollstonecraft in her writings on women rights and she remains un_studied in latin america. I mean, very few people in the university know her work. I got to know about her only last week... Excellent text!

  2. You can't say "de la cruz" as her last name. "de la cruz" only means "from the cross". It would be like saying "Da'Vinci was a great painter." You can't say that because "da'vinci" literally means "from Vinci". There are lots of people from Vinci. At this time people did not have last names because there was not a high enough population to need them, but you still can't say "Da'Vinci was a great painter", because Leonardo was not the only painter from Vinci. It would be like saying "Of Vinci was a great painter", it sounds ridiculous. So you would want to say "the actions of the bishop prompted Sor Juana", not that they prompted "of the cross", because the bishop as well as all of the other people in that monastery are from that town, so saying the location they are from doesn't specify that you are talking about them.

    1. In reality that's not why she's referred to with that name. It is a play on words towards the author, a bishop, who sent her a letter using Sor Filotea de la Cruz. It is Sor Juana's polite form of sarcasm and irony that the bishop would use a woman's name rather than his own in such a patriarchal society.