What does Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz mean when she says, "What wisdom may be ours if not the philosophies of our kitchen?"
With Sor Juana's history, it might be important to recall that from a very young age, she was interested only in learning and books. (She was reading at age three.)
Later, when Sor Juana had joined the convent, in her writing Respuesta a Sor Filotea, she wrote of time spent in the kitchen:
Well, and what shall I tell you, my Lady, of the secrets of nature that I have learned while cooking?...I shall not weary you with such inanities, which I relate simply to give you a full account of my nature, and I believe this will make you laugh. But in truth, my Lady, what can we women know, save philosophies of the kitchen? It was well put... that one can philosophize quite well while preparing supper.
The meaning of her quotation is in two parts. The first is that women are limited to the kitchen so that is all they know. The second part is that there is sufficient time for women to "philosophize" as there is a great deal of manual work to do and a lot of time spent in the kitchen. Sor Juana knew that education came from every direction, as she states when she was once forbidden by a "saintly" mother superior from reading for three months:
I studied all the things that God created, taking them for my letters, and for my book all the intricate structures of this world....
Sor Juana knew that the knowledge that there was in the kitchen was only what women could know: women were not allowed to attend the university to study; this was only for men. And while I do not think she would have insulted the endeavors of those who served by working hard in the kitchen, Sor Juana would have felt much confined in terms of educational pursuits had she been expected to always fulfill the traditional tasks of women in the kitchen, rather that being educated and allowed to read from the innumerable books available to her, allowing her a vast knowledge of the world at large.
Sor Juana reclaims the space of the kitchen as equally suitable for intellectual pursuits. A life of religious devotion and contemplation must be lived everywhere, and no aspect of daily life should be excluded. While women may feel—as she herself had felt at times—that they are confined to the kitchen, that does not render the kitchen unsuitable for religious pursuits. Sor Juana includes matters of the intellect in her approach to devotion. There were times when she was forbidden access to her books, but she maintains that the stuff of real life is just as stimulating as the ideas found in books, or even more so. Consideration of practical matters is useful in helping one understand the limits of the material world. She also expresses the opinion that Aristotle would have written more if he had been a cook.
This quote from Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz is a common argument point for the feminist and women’s rights movements. Particularly in prior decades and centuries, women were relegated to cooking and cleaning, and there was a major lack of female philosophers. This quote embodies that struggle.
Cruz is saying that women haven’t had the opportunity to philosophize except for about their housework, because that’s all they were allowed to do or focus on. Fortunately, she is looking forward to a time when female philosophers like herself become more common. To that end, the women’s equality movements have made strides for equality in the workplace, the sciences, and politics, so women are entering those fields more and more, bringing Cruz’s speculative future to life.