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When Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a child, she was believed to be a prodigy. She desperately wanted to read, and used to steal into her grandfather's library to borrow books. During this time, women were not educated—only the men. She begged to be allowed to dress as a young man and go to the university in Mexico City. The fact that she finally succeeded in learning to read was a miracle in itself in the Mexico of her day.
Sent to Mexico City to live with relatives at age eight, Sor Juana was invited into the court of the viceroy as an intellectual companion for his wife.
In this environment, she was able to write her poetry, and to move throughout the circles of government and society. Sor Juana was born long before her time: if she married, she would have no freedom to follow her intellectual pursuits unless her husband permitted it. The only place where she would be able to do so was the Church, and so she "entered the convent of St. Jerome."
Her work (especially her poetry) garnered a great deal of attention, some positive and some negative, but she was able to quietly enjoy her life until she publicly criticized the sermon of "a famous Jesuit scholar." There was a great deal of concern over this woman's temerity to criticize Father Viera's work. (After all, women were second-class citizens.) A letter from "Sister Filotea" (actually the bishop of Puebla who was trying to stand up for her) brought about Sor Juana's famous response which defended her right as a woman to be educated and to express her intellectual opinions. Her response is entitled, Respuesta de la poetisa a la muy ilustre Sor Filotea de la Cruz ("reply of the poetess to the illustrious Sister Filotea de la Cruz"). Even with support from others and her insistence that she had no desire to challenge the Church's authority or overstep her place in society, she was chastized by the Church.
Other things were happening that did not make her position much easier:
Mexico was suffering from both natural and political problems: rain, flood, famine, pestilence, a total solar eclipse, and riots that almost ended Spanish authority.
Eventually, Sor Juana lost some support. Later she sold off her extensive library (estimated at "four thousand volumes") for charity. She renewed her vows, writing "a reaffirmation of her faith...in her own blood." She eventually became ill while nursing other nuns at the convent who were suffering from an epidemic, and died.
Finding a literary "platform" in the Church was not unusual in itself. For many years, no one could read but the nobility or clerics, monks, etc., within the Roman Catholic Church. It was quite possible to rise through the ranks of the Church and have authority that equalled that of a king. Within the circles of the nobility, women were not allowed to attend school. Sor Juana's decision to take her vows during this era made perfect sense. However, society and the Church could only tolerate just so much from this forward-thinking woman.
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