The tenth muse

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The tenth muse evoking the voices of female narcissism in the works of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
Tramutola, Julie Marie
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vii, 106 leaves : ; 29 cm


Subjects / Keywords:
Feminism and literature -- Mexico ( lcsh )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )


Includes bibliographical references.
General Note:
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Master of Arts, Department of English.
Statement of Responsibility:
by Julie Marie Tramutola.

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University of Colorado Denver
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Auraria Library
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26152430 ( OCLC )
LD1190.L54 1992m .T72 ( lcc )

Full Text
Julie Marie Tramutola
B.A., The Colorado College, 1985
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
Department of English

This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
Julie Marie Tramutola
has been approved for the
Department of
ia- /a-
Mary Rose Sullivan

Tramutola, Julie Marie (M.A., English)
The Tenth Muse: Evoking the Voices of Female Narcissism
in the Works of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
Thesis directed by Assistant Professor Colleen Donnelly
The seventeenth-century Mexican nun-author Sor Juana
Ines de la Cruz, while widely read and admired throughout
the Spanish-speaking world in her day, is scarcely known
by today's readers. Because she challenged the
patriarchal hierarchy of the Catholic Church and New
Spain, she attracted many critics, both in her time and
for hundreds of years after her death in 1695.' Such
criticism sublimated interest in her and her works. Even
now, with her works readily accessible, Sor Juana has yet
to be read as she deserves to be: supported by her own
words, in her own social and historical context. She was
a woman, and a nun, writing in isolation, who would be
condemned and persecuted until her death for straying
from religious writing and for creating her own uniquely
feminine text.
Although, in the latter half of the twentieth century,
Sor Juana's writing has regained an audience,
particularly among readers in feminist literary circles,
a substantial, in-depth critical analysis of her works
does not exist. The resurfacing of her writings calls

for a rereading of her works by feminist-historian
Sociological and historical issuesSor Juana's
illegitimacy/isolation, ambition/power, and
narcissism/masculinity (her biographers' misreading of
her "narcissism" as a "masculine" quality and a "flaw" in
a woman)must be examined to render an accurate reading.
These can be viewed in two ways. Her contemporary and
later biographers contrived to perpetuate a black
journalism known as the black legend, a campaign which
unfairly labeled Sor Juana a heretic and misconstrued her
"narcissism/masculinity." On the other hand, a feminist
historical interpretation such as I intendwith the help
of theorists Electra Arenal, Carolyn Bynum, Helene
Cixous, Sheila Delany, Sidonie Smith, and Virginia
Woolfwill redress each of these slanderous claims,
returning to Sor Juana the rightful ownership of the
cloister, a powerful pen, and a strong ego.
The form and content of this abstract are approved. I
recommend its publication.)

1. INTRODUCTION ..................................... 1
Purpose of the Study..............................1
Defining the Issues...............................5
Biographers and the Black Legend..............5
Female Narcissism: Freud, Woolf, and French
Feminist Criticism .......................... 11
Application of Feminist Critical Theory . .14
The Black Legend: Definition for the Scope of
An Atypical Nun: The Road to the Convent ... 26
A Brief History of Women's Religious Writing .34
Gender and Censorship: Influences on the
Writing of the Reply to Sor Philothea............46
Events Surrounding the Writing of the Reply .48
Explication of the Reply.........................53
The Marriage of Narcissism and Humility
in the Reply.....................................69
"Hombres necios que acusais": Sor Juana's
Poem in Defense of Women.........................76
Historical and Psychological Background for
Reading "Hombres" .............................. 79
The Sexually Inscribed Text: A Feminist Reading
of "Hombres"....................................85

5. CONCLUSION.......................................100
A. A PARAGRAPH FROM THE REPLY......................103
WORKS CITED............................................104

Purpose of the Study
The seventeenth-century Mexican nun Sor Juana Ines de
la Cruz, while widely read and admired throughout the
Spanish-speaking world in her day, was, until 1930, a
"mere historical relic" (Octavio Paz, Sor Juana: Or. the
Traps of Faith v). Because she challenged the
patriarchal hierarchy of the Catholic Church and New
Spain, she attracted many critics, both in her time and
for hundreds of years after her death in 1695. Such
criticism suppressed interest in her and her works, and
it was not until 1951 that a satisfactory four-volume
edition of her writings was compiled (Gerard Flynn, Sor
Juana Ines de la Cruz 13). Even now, with her works
readily accessible, Sor Juana has yet to be read as she
deserves to be: supported by her own words, in her own
social and historical context.

Specifically, several crucial factors indicate that
such a reading would vindicate Sor Juana and her works
from the deluge of misinterpretations and simplistic
readings. She was a woman, and a nun, writing in
isolation, who would be condemned and persecuted until
her death for straying from religious writing and for
creating her own unique text. And she was, as Virginia
Woolf's mythical Judith Shakespeare, alonewith not even
one great, "sanctioned" (canonically recognized) woman
writer before her. And still, Sor Juana had the courage
to be a true innovator. She made the best of her
cloistered surroundings, transforming her isolated status
of illegitimate child and nun into ambition and power;
she challenged patriarchal concepts, "promoting respect
for intelligence . stimulating changes in the social
relation between the sexes, and publicizing images of
women as a powerful force in Catholicism, in history, and
in culture" (Arenal, "Stratagems of the Strong ..."
30) .
Consequently, she was branded narcissistic, masculine,
and heretical (Flynn 13). Sor Juana endured harsh
criticism from Church dogmatists (notably Bishop Manuel
de Fernandez, her most formidable nemesis) and suffered
from their efforts to silence her powerful voice; she

died a martyr's death, working among the poor and giving
away her library of some four thousand volumes (Schons
2) .
Recently, many writers and critics have taken an
interest in Sor Juana. The resurfacing of her writings
calls for a rereading of her works by feminist-historian
critics. Her biographers, both seventeenth-century and
present, have failed to capture the essence of this
extraordinary writer by skewing and contorting her
literary and biographical works to represent their own
interestseven the best-intentioned lack a unified
critical approach worthy of Sor Juana. While providing
interpretations derived from the theories of St. Paul (as
Bishop Manuel Fernandez de Santa Cruz does), Freud
(Ludwig Pfandl), and Marx (Octavio Paz), none have
derived a socio-historical reading of Sor Juana that
adequately depicts her struggle as a woman writing.
These sociological and historical issues, Sor Juana's
illegitimacy/isolation, ambition/power, and
narcissism/masculinity (her biographers' misreading of
her "narcissism" as a "masculine" quality and a "flaw" in
a woman) can be viewed in two ways. Her contemporary and
later biographers contrived to perpetuate the black
legend, "a campaign which unjustly labeled the nun a

heretic and misconstrued her narcissism/masculinity"
(Flynn 13).1 On the other hand, a feminist historical
interpretation such as I intendwith the help of
theorists Electra Arenal, Carolyn Bynum, Helene Cixous,
Sheila Delany, Sidonie Smith, and Virginia Woolfwill
redress each of these slanderous claims, returning to Sor
Juana the rightful ownership of the cloister, a powerful
pen, and a strong ego.
Sor Juana's "black legend critics" inaccurately and
viciously malign those conditions, aspirations, and
attributes that feminist historians posit as contributing
to her success. Each of the three sets of dualisms will
be addressed in a separate chapter. In this way, a
detailed analysis of all of the critical data and
interpretations pertaining to these essential components
will foster an informed dialogue, ultimately leading to
the destruction of the "black legend" and the ensuing
redemption of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. And
furthermore, the discussion of these dualisms can be
embodied in a final and larger theme of choice and
1In her time, ambition was considered a masculine
character trait desirable in a man but "vain" in a woman.
And because she seized ambition and established her power
by the pen, black legend critics labelled her

defense (the nun's decision to write in cloistered
isolation and the subsequent, ongoing defense of her
right to do so), ultimately providing a closure to all of
the dualisms and issues.
An understanding of the specific components
necessitates, first, a closer look at the roots and
significance of the black legend and Sor Juana's
biographers and, second, the application of feminist
historical criticism as a method of re-evaluating the
dualisms and demythologizing the black legend.
Defining the Issues
Because each of her biographers has contributed in one
way or anothersome leaving detrimental scars and others
seeking, but never wholly succeeding, to correct previous
misinterpretationsexamining their assessments of Sor
Juana as woman/nun/author will provide prospective
readers with the necessary background to appreciate her
and her works.
Biographers and the Black Legend
The prologue to Sor Juana or. The Traps of Faith, a
biography of the seventeenth-century nun and scholar,
Of the major poets of our hemisphere, a
number are women, among them Juana Ines de

la Cruz, Emily Dickinson, Gabriela
Mistral, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth
Bishop. . All . were unmarried
and lived somewhat at the fringes of their
time and their world, vitally conscious of
their singularity both as women and as
poets. (Paz 1)
Not surprisingly, Paz contends that "the distinctiveness
of Sor Juana, of her personality as well as her work, is
the most pronounced" (1) .
Several factors distinguish Sor Juana from her
successors. First, she was born Dona Juana de Asbaje y
Ramirez de Santillana in 1648 in Nepantla, Mexico to an
unwed mother (Flynn 13). The fact that she was an
illegitimate child adds to her marginalization and to her
uniqueness as an author. Second, the fact that Sor Juana
was a nunimmersed in the patriarchal traditions and
dogmas of the Catholic Churchsets her apart from
Dickinson, Mistral, Moore, and Bishop. This woman moved
away from the isolation of her illegitimate childhood
into an equally solitary environment as an adult. But,
by cloistering herself in a convent, Sor Juana gained "a
room of her own" and, ultimately, control and power
through her writing.2 Despite tremendous cultural
20n the relationship between women and fiction,
Virginia Woolf asserts that "a woman must have money and a
room of her own if she is to write" (A Room of One's Own

disadvantagesand without a female literary tradition to
followwriting from her cell at the San Jeronimo
convent, she produced many of the major literary works of
seventeenth-century Mexico (Schons 5). And the best-
known are all secular: The Dream. The Reply to Sor
Philothea. and "Hombres necios que acusais" (Flynn 35).
Of Sor Juana's uniqueness, as well as her abilities
as a highly skilled intellectual and author, readers will
need no convincing. However, readers will need an
alternative to the deluge of deprecating criticism in
order to interpret her work. An in-depth look at Juana's
critics provides the point of departure for arriving at a
more suitable critical approach.
Of her major biographers to date, only Paz
legitimizes and appreciates Sor Juana and her work. By
relating historical knowledge of the economic, political,
social, and religious conditions in Sor Juana's Mexico,
he pays homage to Sor Juana in a way none have before.
And yet, he falls short in delivering a credible analysis
because he fails to recognize the importance of Sor
Juana's gender and vocation. Paz succeeds in delivering
a new perspective (one that moves away from gender-based
misinterpretations about the nun's "narcissisism"): he
maintains that the Catholic Church's vehement attacks on

the nun and her works ensued primarily from political
rather than gender concerns. (While he does acknowledge
gender to be a part of any valid analysis of Sor Juana's
life, he still grossly undervalues this aspect.) He
blames the closed-mindedness of the clergy, who would not
accept secular works into their canon of liturgical
writings, for the censorship of writers such as Sor
Juana. And while his new interpretation is welcome and
inviting and rises above "saintly" and Freudian ones
those by Calleja and Pfandl (respectively, seventeenth-
and twentieth-century biographers)Paz does not capture
the essence and significance of what it meant for Sor
Juana to be woman, nun, and author. To date, no other
modern critic has accomplished this task.
For example, Gerard Flynn is one of those modern
critics who, in his seemingly neutral analysis of Sor
Juana, adds to the litany of sexist remarks. In his
biography, Flynn thinks he has resolved the conflict
surrounding Sor Juana's statement of her "total
disinclination to marriage" (Reply to Sor Philothea^ by
saying that "zealous critics'"Ludwig Pfandl, for one
claims of narcissism and masculinity "[have] not borne
good fruit" (21). And yet, Flynn merely posits a
similarly narrow rationalization that serves as a poor
elixir for this conspicuous consumption of bad fruit:

Until some scholar comes up with new
documents, the reader must conclude that
Sor Juana has a 17th-century vocation to
the religious rather than married state in
life. (21)
This statement implies Sor Juana had a choice: marry or
enter a convent. But are these viable options for a
child prodigy and budding female intellectual in
seventeenth-century Mexico? In reality they were the
only avenues open to Sor Juana and the suggestion that
she had a "vocation to . religious . life" is no
better than the explanations of those critics who insist
on viewing her ambition as narcissistic and masculine.
Both interpretations invalidate Sor Juana's scholarship;
her vocation was to the intellectual life.
Clearly, as a reader of Sor Juana, one must not
accept the simplistic conclusions of Flynn and the black
legend critics. A closer look at Sor Juana's epic letter
(Chapter III), the Reply to Sor Philothea. reveals why:
she had no other choice. Since in her society she could
not be both married and an author, she had to become a
nun, cloistering herself in order to obtain her "ardently
desired salvation" (Reply). (The significance and
importance of her statement will be discussed in Chapter

Unlike several of her other biographers, Flynn,
Pfandl, and Calleja, Paz applauds Sor Juana for using the
court and Church to her benefit. Paz says that Calleja
viewed Sor Juana's work as "an allegory of her spiritual
life," turning Sor Juana into a saint (Paz 3) and masking
her literature in mysticism. And of Pfandl's Freudian
biography, Paz writes:
Pfandl ignored nearly all the social and
historical circumstances surrounding
her.... He turns again and again to Sor
Juana's psychic and physiological
conflicts, from infantile penis envy to
the disorders of menopause, but he
overlooks one circumstance that was no
less determining that psychology and
physiology: the masculine character of the
culture and world in which Sor Juana
lived. (53)
Clearly, Calleja and Pfandl's criticisms serve only to
crudely reinforce biases against women writers. And
neither of them give Sor Juana due credit for her
achievementmasterfully seeking and finding a way to
utilize her intellect and express her art.
And yet, while Paz recognizes that she was destined
to isolation because of her status, he fails to realize
that it is precisely these "trappings"her status as
illegitimate child and nunthat become her strengths.
To the woman writing in cloistered isolation,
displacement and difference no longer serve as
shortcomings, but, rather, strengths.

Female Narcissism: Freud. Woolf, and French Feminist
While narcissism, as defined in literature, dates
back to Greek mythology, the modern concept of female
narcissism has been bantered about ever since Freud
unleashed his spurious notions on the subject. In
essence, Freud defined female narcissism as a woman's
frail dependence on male validation of appropriately
"feminine" standards of beauty, "charms," and behavior.
Freud "explained" the unique nature of female narcissism
by claiming that it is rooted in penis-envy, and thus, no
man would suffer from such deluded thinking:
we attribute a larger amount of narcissism
to femininity, which also affects women's
choice of object, so that to be loved is a
stronger need for them than to love. The
effect of penis-envy has a share, further,
in the physical vanity of women, since
they are bound to value their charms more
highly as a compensation for their
original sexual inferiority. (The
Standard Edition of the Complete
Psychological Works of Sicrmund Freud
Woolf, on the other hand, repudiated Freud's male
psychoanalysis and its devaluation of women (Bradford
Mudge, "Echo's Words, Echo's Body" 7). She is quick to
point out the sheer idiocy of Freud's "separate doctrine"
concept of "male" and "female;" narcissism. As she writes
in A Room of One's Own.

it is the masculine values that prevail.
Speaking crudely, football and sport are
"important"; the worship of fashion, the buying
of clothes "trivial." (77)
Woolf asks why would one accept, as Freud would have it,
that there exists two separate, gender-specific types of
narcissism? Why is football a sanctioned form of
narcissistic objectification while the buying of clothes
remains a distinctly feminine narcissistic weakness? The
answer, of course, lies in the fact that the dominant
male culture has appropriated its own values, and its
narcissistic objects of worship, thereby prescribing all
other "non-male" objects/values as unworthy, feminine, or
"trivial." Such a definition of female narcissism
discourages women from becoming whole persons, because
they have been denied narcissuses/egos by virtue of their
sex and society1s proscriptive roles. Essentially, this
cultural doctrine dictates that women are non-entities,
silenced by the male system that has taken away the
"true" female narcissus (voice). Once again, Woolf said
it first, when, in Three Guineas, "she recognized that
male discourse appropriated the 'feminine' and defined it
as the object of male desire" ("Echo's Words, Echo's
Body" 8). (These distinct notions of masculine and
feminine narcissism have influenced the

way Sor Juana's writing has been read and have led to
attacks promulgated by the black legend.)
Modern feminism preserves the gender distinction of
narcissism but sees feminine narcissism as empowering.
Seeking to reverse Freud's oppressive definition of
female narcissism, French feminism has undertaken to
provide corrective remedies to heal the wounded female
narcissus. Helene Cixous, for one, in "The Laugh of the
Medusa," calls for the deliverance of female narcissism
as an empowering autonomy, one that unites both word and
body in a uniquely "feminine" writing. For Cixous, the
female body writes a distinctly female text because a
woman "physically materializes what she's [writing]" and
makes "her story into history" (251). In other words,
for Cixous, writing and narcissism are one and the same
means of empowerment. Without the strength of her
feminine ego/narcissus, a woman would be cut off from her
body and her words and, therefore, disenfranchised of her
voice. Essentially, a woman needs her narcissism to
write a feminine text, one concerned with unifying
woman's words and woman's body.
How the reader views these issues concerning the
relationship between writing and narcissism directly
affects how the reader of Sor Juana will evaluate the

claims of the black legend critics against those of
current day feminist historians. Only by understanding
the dialogue between the writer and the narcissisttwo
parts of Sor Juana's psychedoes it become evident that
Sor Juana's biographers and critics have missed a key
point in interpreting her life and works: she attained
her status as the literary figure of her day by
appropriating the power of her female narcissism and
embodying that power in her words. Above all else, her
narcissism was empowering and provided the impetus for
her writing. Without the strength of her female
narcissism, Sor Juana would not have been able to write
on behalf of women. And therefore, her "narcissism" must
be the operative concept which will frame the rest of
this discussion. Because, after all, it is Sor Juana's
"narcissism" that pervades and influences the other
dualisms with which she dealt (illegitimacy/isolation and
Application of Feminist Critical Theory
Although narcissism empowers a woman to write, she
still seeks others as role models. In A Room of One's
Own. Virginia Woolfas the prototype of the feminist
historiographerkeenly perceived that women, if they are
to take up the pen, need role models in order to write.

As Sheila Delany confirms in Writing Woman, looking back
through literary mothers is essential to the woman writer
primary identification and influence surely
require a same-sex figure, since so much of what
one identifies with is the process of writing,
its ease or difficulty, its circumstances and
assumptions. (182)
After all, "looking back through our mothers"
provides the theoretical structure for asserting a
separate arena in which feminist critics may debate the
worth of "minor" texts:
Without those forerunners [middle-class women
writers], Jane Austen and the Brontes and George
Eliot could no more have written than
Shakespeare could have written without Marlowe,
or Marlowe without Chaucer, or Chaucer without
those forgotten poets who paved the ways and
tamed the natural savagery of the tongue. For
masterpieces are not single and solitary births;
they are the outcome of many years of thinking
in common, of thinking by the body of the
people, so that the experience of the mass is
behind the single voice. (A Room of One's Own
Woolf's concept implies that women writers engender other
women writers and that these women share a common voice,
a history, a "body" of experience.
And subsequently, modern authors and literary critics
who look to writers such as Sor Juana will find elements
of Woolf's "unity of the mind" that comes from thinking
back through our mothers fA Room of One's Own 101). Like

Woolfwho sees a woman writing as defining her identity,
her way of thinking, her "unity of the mind" via her
literary mothersCixous sees a woman's text as her body.
Similarly, those who view Sor Juana's work in a feminist
light will discover what Cixous prescribes: the feminine
text unites the woman's body and history with her words.
Feminist criticism redresses the damage done by Paz and
other "canonical" critics who praise the woman writer in
isolation for making good on the "weaknesses" of her
gender, i.e., the traditionally male interpretation of
gender traits that limit or label the woman writer. Such
interpretations serve only to attempt to keep a woman's
body severed from her words, a precendent dating back to
ancient Greece and the myth of Narcissus. By
establishing the proper context, the realm of feminist
literature and criticism, with which to read Sor Juana,
the issue of her narcissism can be resolved.
Although Sor Juana did not have a Jane Austen,
Charlotte or Emily Bronte, or George Eliot for a
"literary mother," as a nun she did have access to a
tradition of convent religious writing. While the nuns
writing before her are not comparable to a literary
mother of the stature Woolf describes, they nonetheless
served as inspirations and models, and as forces forging

a united voice. While the majority of female religious
writing consisted of ancillary commentaries in the
margins of Church documents authored by men, there was
one woman, St. Teresa of Avila, who was a writer of a
different caliber, and Sor Juana most likely read her.
The publication of St. Teresa's Vida in 1588
became the paradigm for all subsequent
religious autobiography in the Hispanic
world . [and her] work paved the way
for the production of hundreds (perhaps
thousands) of documentsespecially
Vidasthat imitated and developed the
same themes [spiritual growth and the
daily routines of the female religious]
. . She thus revived a thousand-year-old
tradition of convent writing and extended
the range of women's literary expression.
(Arenal and Schlau, "Stratagems of the
Strong ..." 26-27)
Women and men religious viewed St. Teresa's
introspective prose as "authorization for the writing
self" (Arenal and Schlau 26). While Sor Juana most
likely was inspired by this tradition, her works depart
from those standard narratives on spiritual growth and
convent life; she makes only minor references to her
experience within the convent (Lavrin, "Unlike Sor Juana?
The Model Nun in the Religious Literature of Colonial
Mexico" 79). The autobiographical letter Reply to Sor
Philothea is perhaps the one work revealing the most
similarities in the use of stylistic devices, such as

ironic flattery, humility topos, or claims to place the
responsibility for taking up the pen with another,
between Sor Juana and St. Teresa and other authors of
Vidas. Even though the literary evidence that would link
the two nun writers is scant, St. Teresa must have served
as some sort of minor literary mother to Sor Juana. And,
she could use all the words of the sisters before her as
a springboard for her own writing, a body of work that
came to be celebrated in a way no other previous nuns
could claim.
While Sor Juana built on the literary tradition of
the female religious, she surpassed the contributions of
previous nun authors by "defendfing] the intelligence,
reason, art, and power of . [her] sex" like none
other, thus elevating convent writing to a new plateau
(Arenal, "This Life within Me Won't Keep Still" 158).
Refusing to be restricted by the mere fact of her gender,
she accessed the only available avenues to the male world
of literature, ideas, and powerthose of court and
Church. According to Paz,
the two places where men and women could
congregate for the purpose of intellectual
and aesthetic communication were the
convent locutory and the palace drawing
room. Sor Juana made use of both. (45)

Sor Juana's writings transported the female religious
into a new arena, the male-dominated world of the
literati. She broke ground for women authors, both
religious and lay, by gaining the favor of viceroyalty
and intellectuals throughout New Spain. Several of Sor
Juana's poems were published by her contemporaries, Don
Carlos de Siguenzathe most distinguished scholar of the
periodand the poet Diego de Ribera (Schons 10-11).3
While such recognition by her contemporaries enabled
her to gain access to male discourse and the power that
accompanies the pen, there were those who would malign
her with accusations of "narcissism." The black legend
critics have maintained, thoroughout the seventeenth to
twentieth centuries, that Sor Juana must be a narcissist
because she was successful in appropriating power through
the church and court. This twisted interpretation
remains untenable, reprehensible, and dangerous; for, in
3Diego de Ribera included in his Descriociones (1668)
"one of the earliest poems, and perhaps the earliest poem
of a secular nature, published by Juana"written before
she became a nun. And in 1676, he printed a sonnet by Sor
Juana in his Defectuoso eoilogo. Don Carlos de Siguenza
published two poems by Sor Juanaone in his Paneovrico
(1680) and another in his Trofeo de la iusticia espanola
(1691). In addition, Siguenza submitted to Sor Juana for
criticism his composition celebrating the arrival in Mexico
of a new viceroy, the Count of Paredes, thereby
demonstrating how highly Juana was rated by the
intellectuals of- the city. Years later, upon her death
in 1695, Siguenza preached the funeral oration (Schons 11) .

the hands of those critics intent on propogating negative
images of women (defaming Sor Juana's character and
discounting her genius with their charges of narcissism
and masculinity), there remains little promise of ever
understanding the tremendous accomplishments of Sor Juana
or other female authors who have endured equally
slanderous attacks.
The Black Legend: Definition for the Scope of Study
In addition to a knowledge of Sor Juana's biographers
and how feminist criticism will redress
misinterpretations of her life and writing, modern
readers of Sor Juana will need to share in her history in
order to fully appreciate, rather than merely intuit, her
works. An understanding of the circumstances and culture
in which Sor Juana wrote proves as important as the works
themselves. Specifically, conflicting interpretations,
such as those asserting the "narcissism/masculinity" of
Sor Juana's literary persona and works, have their roots
in the black legend which surrounds her life and her
alleged heresy. Therefore, rectifying the spurious views
purported by the black legend critics becomes essential
in reasserting the strengths of Sor Juana and her

One definition of the black legend posits that
certain biographers, writing from 1940 to 1952,
perpetuated a black journalism which accused Sor Juana of
being a heretic (Gerard Flynn, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
13). Flynn documents that these authors created negative
images of Sor Juana, seeing her as a "cunning woman who
. . fooled both Church and State, . acted
hypocritically, . disdained religion, and . .
became a modern heretic" (13). And even though Flynn
tries to debunk this black legend, he only serves to
shroud it in yet another idiosyncrasy: his
aforementioned statement regarding Sor Juana's "total
disinclination to marriage." In fact, Paz stands apart
from Flynn, Schons, and Pfandl in that he represents the
only major biographer whoby viewing Sor Juana's work as
a social and historical productcomes the closest to
reversing the repressive labeling resulting from the
black legend.
For the sake of this analysis, the black legend will
be discussed as encompassing more than Flynn's
definition. That is, it will heretofore include: the
writings of the aforementioned modern biographers (Flynn
and Pfandl and their Freudian interpretations), a
contemporary biographer (Jesuit Diego Calleja who

minimizes Sor Juana's work by labelling her a "saint"),
and her harshest contemporary critic (Bishop Manuel de
Fernandez who pseudonymonously authors an adomonishment
of Sor Juana's writing). This body of writing will
provide the background information necessary to
critically evaluate how Sor Juana and her works have been
misread; and, consequently, socio-historical/feminist
methods of analysis will be used to redress the wrongs of
past (specious generalizations and gender-biased
attacks). Specifically, by lifting the repressive veil
of the black legend, the real Sor Juana surfaces as
seventeenth-century Mexico's foremost poet and scholar,
musician, and nunin short, an extraordinary woman.
And by interpreting two of Sor Juana's works (the
Reply to Sor Philothea and "Hombres necios que acusais")
in the context of seventeenth-century Mexican society, a
dualism, overlooked and unresolved by the black legend,
emerges which is essential to understanding her
contribution to literary history. In short, Sor Juana's
life and her scholarly undertakings are inextricably
linked to a dualism of choice (writing in cloistered
isolation) and defense (defending her right to the pen).
Therefore, the remaining chapters will serve to form
an "arachnology"Nancy K. Miller's name for a theory of

female textualityof Sor Juana and her works. As
Sidonie Smith envisions in A Poetics of Women's
Autobiography; Marginality and the Fictions of Self-
representation any arachnology:
must grapple with the formal constrictions and
rhetorical presentations, the historical context
and psychosexual labyrinth, the subversions and
the capitulations of women's self-writing in a
patriarchal culture that "fictionalizes" her
[the female author]. (18)
This type of analysis will provide readers of Sor Juana
with a perspective for evaluating her writing as cultural

Before looking directly at Sor Juana's work,
underscoring the fundamental dualisms of her society
proves insightful. None of her biographers to date have
adequately depicted the nexus of Sor Juana's culture and
writing; specifically, none have addressed how an
understanding of the tradition of nuns' writing within
the dogmatic confines of a patriarchy inevitably leads to
a richer, more precise reading of Sor Juana and her
works. Indeed, any comprehensive study would not be
complete without a knowledge of the religious heritage
within which she produced her writing.
Perhaps Sor Juana's biographers have neglected taking
a close look at seventeenth-century Mexico because it is
one of the periods of Mexican history that has been
"scribbled over and revised with greatest zeal" (Paz 11).
Or rather, previous biographers may have deliberately

omitted a socio-historical perspective in order to
perpetuate the kind of narrow reading advanced by black
legend critics. At any rate, for the purpose of this
study, an understanding of the cultural and religious
climate of New Spain will provide the backdrop against
which Sor Juana can be read.
In addition to embracing the powerful religious
character of mother Spain, several characteristics of the
society predominate: seventeenth-century Mexico was a
dogmatic, male-oriented, and oral culture (Paz 45).
Furthermore, many changes were occurring within the
Church due to a "blending of religious trends." In the
previous century, the edicts of the Council of Trent
(1545-1563) not only sought to delineate the differences
between the Catholic and Protestant Churches but also
served to regularize and systematize the behavior of the
members of the Roman Catholic Church. This resulted in a
movement toward mysticism within the Church as well as a
"return to more classic forms of spirituality . .
religious ceremonies (mass, the eucharist, etc.), prayer,
and acts of penance and devotion" (Lavrin 76). Later on
in this chapter, an examination of Sor Juana's own

alleged "mysticism" will reveal how she adapted to the
new movement within the Church.
But for now, it is important to note the overall
impact on religious women writers:
The blend of these trends is reflected in
the works written for nuns and by nuns,
and the norms of religious life adopted by
convents in the XVII and XVIII centuries
.... To ignore this heritage and to
deny that it translated itself into the
foundation of convents and the pursuit of
religious life . is to distort and
misinterpret the character of the period.
(Lavrin 76-77)
Any analysis that denies the importance of issues dealing
with the writer in her culture is doomed to generate a
reproduction of her previous biographers' works, in which
the female author as object is "fictionalized" via a
theoretically inscribed male discourse of literary
An Atypical Nun: The Road to the Convent
Before examining in more detail the works Sor Juana
produced while in the convent, it is necessary to ask how
she came to convent life in the first place. At a young
age, she expressed her desire to attend the university,
even though, of course, it was not open to women. While
there are many folkloric tales about Sor Juana's
"eccentric" yearning "to be like a man" and become a

scholar, several particular stories appear again and
again in her biographies. Eduardo Galeano, in Memory of
Fire: Genesis (an historical narration of events in
Mexico from pre-Columbian times up to the 18th century),
tells of Juana's fierce determination at age seven:
She sees her mother coming in the
mirror and drops the sword, which falls
with a bang like a gunshot, and Juana
gives such a start that her whole face
disappears beneath the broad-brimmed hat.
"I'm not playing," she says angrily
as her mother laughs. She frees herself
from the hat and shows her mustachios
drawn with soot. Juana's feet move
awkwardly in the enormous leather boots;
she trips and falls and kicks in the air,
humiliated, furious; her mother cannot
stop laughing.
"I'm not playing," Juana protests,
with tears in her eyes. "I'm a man! I'll
go to the university, because I'm a man!"
The mother strokes her head. "My crazy
daughter, my lovely Juana. I ought to
whip you for these indecencies."
She sits beside her and says softly:
"Better you were born stupid, my poor
know-it-all daughter," and caresses her
while Juana soaks her grandfather's huge
cape with tears. (239)
Galeano's reconstruction of this incident, based on two
biographical accounts, paves the way for establishing
Juana's intelligence and her aspirations for a scholarly
Juana, "[the] child prodigy [who] created her own
supportive milieu among the books of her grandfather's
library," was primarily self-educated (Arenal, "This

Life" 159). Another episode, often related, from her
youth describes how she would cut her hair as a
motivation to learn Latin. As Sor Juana narrates her
unusual method of self-instruction, it is as if she were
engaging in a kind of penance and self-deprecation:
I began to study Latin, in which I do not
believe I had twenty lessons in all, and I
was so intensely studious that despite the
natural concern of womenespecially in
the flower of their youthwith dressing
their hair, I used to cut four or five
fingers' width from mine, keeping track of
how far it had formerly reached, and
making it my rule that if by the time it
grew back to that point, I did not know
such-and-such a thing which I had set out
to learn as it grew, I would cut it again
as a penalty for my dullness. Thus it
would happen that it would grow back and I
still would not know what I had set myself
to learn, because my hair grew rapidly,
whereas I was a slow learner, and I did
indeed cut it as a punishment for my
slowness, for I did not consider it right
that a head so bare of knowledge should be
dressed with hair, knowledge being the
more desirable ornament. (Alan S.
Trueblood, trans., Reply to Sor Philothea
In her teen years, as the Marquesa's maid of honor in the
viceregal court, she continued to study Latin and other
subjects. A few years later, when she entered the
convent, Juana's self-education was to comprise her only
way of learning (Flynn 15).
After her service as the Marquesa's maid of honor
(1664-1670), or rather, "just when her learning and her

wit had captured the admiration of the learned and of
court society," Sor Juana entered the convent of San Jose
de las Carmelitas Descalzas (the Discalced Carmelites)
(Paz 98). But "the order was severe, and after a brief
time a frightened Juana Ines [age 20] returned to the
world" (Paz 98). However, a year and a half later, she
entered the Convent of San Jeronimo where she remained
until her death.
There are at least several possible explanations as
to why Sor Juana left the convent of San Jose de las
Carmelitas Descalzas after only three months and later
entered the convent of San Jeronimo. First, as Paz
suggests, austerity and dedication to narrowly religious
ideals characterized the Carmelite order, while San
Jeronimo was known for the "mildness of its discipline"
(99). Perhaps Sor Juana had difficulty fitting in at the
first convent because of the order's rigidity and
religiosity and found relief in the freedom and solace of
the second. While the convent of San Jose required Sor
Juana to comply with strict obligations to religious
duties, San Jeronimo afforded her the opportunity to
attend to fewer of these, thereby allowing her more time
alone in her cell for studying and writing. But a
reference in the Reply offers an even more intriguing

interpretation. After her famous passage "I became a nun
because . given my total disinclination to
marriage. . .," Sor Juana reveals that
[these] small frivolities . [her] wish to
live alone, to have no fixed occupation which
might curtail [her] freedom to study, nor the
noise of a community to interfere with the
tranquil stillness of [her] books . made
[her] hesitate a little before making up [her]
mind [to devote herself to convent life]....
What Sor Juana implies here is that while the convent was
not an ideal place for her to carry out her true
vocation, to study and write, it was the best possible
choice available. And the second convent fit those needs
better than the first, because at San Jeronimo Sor Juana
had more time and freedom to write.4 *
Her biographers/critics fail to agree on her reasons
for entering the convent. Perhaps this is because, as
Lavrin claims, "some historians assume that vocation for
religious life was not always completely sincere, and
that families disposed of their unmarriageable daughters
4She writes in the Reply of how she nvow[ed] not to
enter a single cell [of her fellow nuns] unless obedience
or charity required it of [her]" because she "realized
. . . [she] was neglecting [her] study [by visiting with
the sisters during free time]" (218). Sor Juana is able to
control how she spends her free time at San Jeronimo, and
this provides her with a degree of freedom and solace not
available to her at the convent of San Jose.

by putting them into a convent [because the profession
was presumed to be less expensive than marriage]" (75).
At first, such an interpretation relative to Sor Juana
might seem valid, as she was born of a mother who,
single-handedly, could not support her or her other six
illegitimate children (Paz 65).5 But further research
reveals that on both economic and intellectual grounds,
this interpretation fails to present a convincing and,
for Mexico at this time, true-to-the-period picture for
these reasons:
1) A nun's profession was not a cheap
affair as most orders required an
2) Both marital and convent dowries were
comparable: 1,000-5,000 pesos in the XVII
and XVIII centuries for the former and
2,000-4,000 pesos for the latter.
3) Most convents involved other expenses:
clothes, purchase of a cell for the nun,
provision of slaves or servants, and,
possibly, an endowment which would provide
the nun with an annual sum of money for
her living expenses. (Lavrin 75)6
5She had lived some six years with relatives in Mexico
City before her court days (Paz 86).
6However, it is important to note that there existed
some discrepancies as to which nuns incurred such expenses
due to an elaborate caste system within the convents.
Electa Arenal documents that Sor Juana's convent, San
Jeronimo, "was run by a complex hierarchy: at the top,
nuns of the black veil, fully dowered, supposedly
legitimate of birth and pure of blood; in the middle,
mestizo and Indian servants; and at the bottom, mulatto and
black slaves, some belonging to the community at large,
some to individual nuns" ("This Life ..." 159).

The number of families financially able to afford these
expenses was relatively small; and consequently, pious
endowments were created to help some families defray the
costs of their daughters' profession (Lavrin 75).
In Sor Juana's case, her dowry was paid by two
benefactors, the wealthy Don Pedro Velazquez de la Cadena
and the Jesuit Antonio Nunez (Lavrin 75).7 Paz notes
that Sor Juana's dowry of 3,000 pesos was "more than her
half-sisters took to their husbands when they were
married" (108).
Taking all of the above into consideration, it seems
highly unlikely that Sor Juana was forced into the
convent because of family pressures or as a last resort
(i.e., because she had no suitors, as black legend
critics purport). Clearly, she was not driven to the
convent because of some perceptible defect that rendered
her unacceptable in society's eyes. Even her
illegitimacy cannot be used to rationalize her
cloistering considering two of her half-sisters married
7It is possible that "the palace was [Sor Juana's]
stepping-stone to the convent" (Paz 108). Paz speculates,
"if Sor Juana had not spent those years in the viceregal
palace, she might not have found a sponsor to pay her
dowry. . Perhaps her family placed her with the
Vicereine with the idea that through her protection and
connections Juana Ines would find a sponsor and benefactor"

despite their own illegitimate births. Sor Juana's own
ambitions and intelligence led her to the only choice
convent lifeavailable to a woman of her aspirations.
Once she became a nun, Sor Juana proved to be rather
unconventional; her writing differed significantly from
the bulk of other nuns' works, most likely because she
began her scholarship under lay patronage while at court
(Lavrin 84). And although it is "impossible to date with
any certainty her poems from [her court] years [because
of a complete lack of chronological guideposts]," Sor
Juana's first two datable sonnets were written in 1666
and 1667, about the time she entered her first convent
(Trueblood, A Sor Juana Anthology 4). Because Sor Juana
aroused the envy of the court with her charm and wit, one
can deduce that her life as a writer began at court
rather than in the conventan experience unlike that of
most nun authors who began writing after entering the
Even though she produced works befitting a devout
Catholic and nun, such as her Eiercicios Devotos
("Devotional Exercises") and Ofrecimientos (litanies),
the extent of Sor Juana's religiosity, while far from

mysticism,8 would be better characterized by her
dedication to the daily duties required of all nuns and
her devotion to her confessor, Father Antonio Nunez to
whom she was "tied to ... by strong religious bonds"
(Lavrin 79).
By and large, the reason Sor Juana continues to be
misread as a writer, nun, and woman has everything to do
with the way in which her major biographers have been
reading her: through a patristic, mystical tradition
that does not fit her. Such a view overlooks much of her
brilliance and leads to simplistic readings.
A Brief History of Women's Religious Writing
Sor Juana, while writing in an almost exclusively
male domain, exceeded the accomplishments of "fellow"
(male religious) authors (Schons 11); she was also
someone who fit in with and, at once, differed from her
"[Sor Juana] did not bother to mention even once such
circumstances [visions, supernatural events, or mystical
experiences] in her writings, [and, therefore, she] must
have been quite atypical. . [She] never experienced
visions or supernatural events, or the 'mystical'
experiences which abound in the religious literature of the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries" (Lavrin 85) And
yet, Sor Juana's major biographer, Calleja, insisted on
depicting Sor Juana as a saint, thereby masking her
literature in mysticism rather than paying homage to her as
a writer renowned in all the Spanish and Portuguese-
speaking countries of the seventeenth century.

female religious sisters. Therefore, Sor Juana's own
tradition, that of the female religious, must be examined
before looking at her specific contributions to and
relations within her community.
Preceding Sor Juana was a long history of women's
personal and religious writingbiographies and
autobiographies written by nuns about their lives or
other nuns' or saints' lives as well as sermons, pastoral
letters, and books of religious instruction and religious
meditations (Lavrin 75). Sor Juana embraced this
tradition as well as enhanced it, reinscribing
patriarchal concepts via her lifelong struggles
documented in her writingswith Church authorities who
tried to silence her.
Nuns writing during the Middle Ages (before the
Council of Trent) endured fewer risks than those writing
during the Inquisition, according to Electa Arenal:
women had begun to write their Lives to
prove their own saintliness and that of
other nuns and to chronicle their
collective history. They left a record of
social, scientific, and artistic, as well
as spiritual practices, as yet to be fully
documented. ("Stratagems . ."26)
But nothing threatened a nun's right to take up the pen
like the edicts of the Council:
Especially after the Council of Trent, the
prose of the conventpurportedly an act
of obedienceconstituted an act of

defiance. Many of the Council's edicts
prescribed how convents should be run.
Enclosure became compulsory; all nuns were
henceforth to be cloistered. Most
significant for writing nuns were the
proclamations of "holy ignorance" and
illiteracy for women religious.
Study of Latin, the official language of
the Church, was considered illicit.
(Arenal and Schlau 25)
In spite of the punitive doctrine of the Council of Trent
that allowed men to confine women to a convent, men could
not keep women from forming a community of their own or
from writing. And yet it is not surprising that "an
educated woman who passed beyond mere literacy into the
reading of literary or historical texts, or who knew
Latin and had some notions of mathematics, was an unusual
individual in the XVI and XVII centuries" (Lavrin 77).
Since Sor Juana: excelled in all of these areas and went
on to write, not merely read, texts, she exposed herself
to an increased isolation; her intellectual prowess set
her apart from the other nuns and subjected her to
criticism from the Church.
Furthermore, Sor Juana often addressed issues derived
from this dualistic culture in her writing (such as her
comments on silence and her angry, ironic portrayal of
the inferior role imposed upon womensee the poem

"Hombres necios . ."in Chapter IV).9 In essence, Sor
Juana was manacled to the injustices of Catholic Mexico's
system of dual standards. As a woman, she could not
entirely escape the confines of her cloister or transcend
the limits of her culture; however, she could write about
her experience, thereby championing the causes of all
women, and especially those who did not have a voice, or,
more accurately, a pen.
Reading Sor Juana without an understanding of how
such a history and culture had shaped her experience
would be pointless. In seeking an explanation as to how
her culture influenced her writing, several questions
arise: In what way did the Church's limits on convent
writing (after the Council of Trent) influence the women?
How did it stifle and/or censor their writing? And what
strengths did the women find in their cloistered
There are at least two ways to look at the
restrictions and cloistering imposed by the Council of
Trent: the first is to explore the questions raised
9Seventeenth-century Mexican culture can be said to be
dualistic not only because the Church dictated certain
divisions, such as those derived from separate roles and
behavior for each sex, but because there existed tremendous
differences between expectations for the male and female
religious as well.

above in terms of the undeniable impact and inherent
limitations of the highly patriarchal nature of
theological discourse; the second view takes into
consideration certain advantages and positive outgrowths
arising from the sanctions. Both perspectives are
necessary to render a clear picture of convent life.
To deny that the confines of seventeenth-century
patriarchy limited what nuns were allowed to write would
be to ignore a major influence operating on all female
religious of that day. The isolation and restrictive
nature of convent life represented both menace and
blessing to the female religious. The cloister provided
the female religious with a "room of one's own"a
community in which to write, an impossibility in the
biological family. Arenal and Schlau reiterate the
importance of a cloistered community: "Separation from
men enabled women to gain a sense of power that promoted
female autonomy and motivated creative expression" (37).
And yet, the cloister was no haven for the female
religious writer. Convent community autonomy and
individual motivation, both trump cards to the female
religious writer, conflicted with church needs to control
women's behavior: "Convent writers bent their needs to
the needs and wishes of the Church in a complex mixture

of submission and subversion" (Arenal and Schlau 28).
Sor Juana, as a more subversive than submissive nun,
wrestles with these very forces in her Reply to Sor
Philothea. (See Chapter IV.)
Given these austere conditions for the climate of
convent writing, it is not surprising that the tradition
of the female monastic has remained in the margin,
largely because the majority of works produced
contributed little to the body of women's writing. While
the Church officially encouraged religious men's writing,
"the words of women appeared in quotation marks that
punctuated thousands of pages composed by men of the
church" (Arenal and Schlau 26). Such marginalia defines
the nun author's position as that of a glosser, one who
provides commentaries and, therefore, relinquishes true
ownership over her actual writing. Arenal and Schlau
have documented that the major aim of including women's
words in sermons, panegyrics, and historical documents
was "to inspire and mold female members of the flock"
(38). By and large, the women contributing to these
texts faded into anonymity. Sor Juana, however, was not
one to add comments or to inspire women to accept Church
dogma; her words stood alone as complete texts. She was
one of the rare women to rise to a position of power and

fame via her writing: "Prior to Sor Juana, none of the
works of these women [convent writers] seems to have been
published or received much public attention" (Lavrin 84).
And still, even her well-known work Reply was published
Perhaps one of the single-most important
contributions of nun writers was promoting women's
silence; they succeeded in masking their thoughts in
language acceptable to authority and, at the same time,
achieving voice (Arenal and Schlau 25). Sor Juana was a
master of such "double-voicedness," the quality embodied
in the tongue-in-cheek style and seeming self-
flagellation of many of her works. The female religious,
as many other women, had an interest in writing about
silence. But as a woman contained in a cloistera place
whose purpose is to "silence" intelligent women and make
them into female role models, as prescribed by the
ChurchSor Juana had a vested interest in writing about
silence. She veils prominent concerns in her Reply via
repeated allusions to silence when she points up
obstructions of convent life and denounces censorship by
Church officials.
In the Reply. Sor Juana uses baroque word play to
underscore the uses of silence:

as silence is a negative thing, though it
explains a good deal through the very
stress of not explaining, we must assign
some meaning to it that we may understand
what the silence is intended to say, for
if not, silence will say nothing, as that
is its very office: to say nothing.
(Peden, trans., A Woman of Genius: The
Intellectual Autobiography of Sor Juana
Ines de la Cruz 18)
This passage reveals several concerns of great importance
to Sor Juana. First, the very act of addressing the
issue of "silence" represents a revolutionary act for the
nun writer. By "naming" silence she makes it stand for
something, which is the opposite of what it intends
nothingness, secrecy, and complicity. Sor Juana actually
assigns a value to silence and thereby creates something
out of nothing; she believes that silence can be read as
holy ignorance. And in referring to it as a "negative,"
she challenges the doctrine of holy ignorance in that she
discounts the validity as well as exposes the absurdity
of such a policy. Second, her statement is one of
The doctrine of holy ignorance promulgated various
proclamations prohibiting scholarship and literacy among
female religious. Namely, the doctrine excluded religious
women from becoming literate and learning Latin, necessary
for interpretating Church documents, and allowed for only
one type of writingobedient writing, as the glossing of
psalms. However, progenitors of the doctrine of holy
ignorance mistakenly assumed that discouraging nuns from
reading, writing and learning Latinaimed at preventing
"preaching" from Biblical and Church textswould make them
"silent" and "submissive." Although nuns may not have
directly expressed their objections to the vow of holy
ignoranceafter all, they accepted the vow when they took

submission as well as subversion. How can anyone accuse
her of violating her sacred vow if she repeatedly couches
her thoughts in language acceptable to authority?
This excerpt illustrates how Sor Juana veils a
prominent concern in her writing via her use of language.
Rather than speaking out directly against holy ignorance,
she skillfully dances around the issue by entertaining
the theme of silence as if it were a word game or
diversion. But, on the contrary, what Sor Juana stresses
on a more overt level is that silence must be ''explained"
because "unnamed" it will succeed in "its very office" of
promulgating policies of illiteracy and ignorance for
convent writers, as the authors of Church doctrine would
have it.
Another way in which nun authors circumvented the vow
of holy ignorance has to do with claims made by many
the veilthey did not remain silent. The Church might
have been successful in preventing nuns from "preaching,"
perhaps the patriarch's greatest fear, but it could not
keep them silent. Merely restricting or limiting the
acceptable range of knowledge or scholarship to be attained
by a nun did not ensure that nuns submitted to the
doctrine. On the contrary, female religious rebelled
against the doctrine via indirect means in their writing.
While holy ignorance implied that nuns were to have nothing
to say and were to comply with Church dogma, nun writers
did the opposite of what the doctrine intendedthey wrote
about silence, about cloistering, and about convent life.
They thereby disproved and rejected the notion that
ignorance equals silence.

women that they were ordered to write by God himself.
Sor Juana uses such a deliberate stratagem many times in
the Reply. The effect is much like that of the humility
topos, allowing the author to negotiate his/her own
meaning within a prescriptive textsuch as the
"obedient" text that all nun writers were to adhere to.
By invoking this well-known rhetorical device, the female
religious author could hide behind a mask; while the
language of self-debasement appears frequently throughout
their texts, they manage to subvert the very ideas that
their prose/verse purportedly submits tonamely, silence
and holy ignorance and their companions, obedience and
What the nun author engaged in this discourse
achieves is nothing short of a balancing act. In another
passage from the Reply. Sor Juana again calls upon
silence and humility, throwing out one and then the
other, a gesture befitting any juggler. But she has more
to risk than just dropping the ball; she must cautiously
walk a tightrope, lest she be devoured by her critic
below, the bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernandez de Santa
Cruz (a.k.a. Sor Philothea, the "authoress" to whom the
Reply is addressed). Look at how carefully Sor Juana
manuevers her way around the bishop/Sor Philothea's
praise and admonition;

I, my Lady, will answer only that I do not
know what to answer; my only thanks will
be to say that I am incapable of thanking
you [for praising my critique of Jesuit
Viera's sermon]; and I will say, as a
brief indication of what I leave to
silence, that only with the assurance of
your favor and on the strength of your
honoring me, can I dare to talk with Your
Greatness. If I speak nonsense, forgive
me, since it is a warrant of well-being.
I will thereby provide Your Benevolence
with more grounds [proofs of my right to
write], and you will give me further
cause, for gratitude. (Trueblood, trans.,
Reolv 207)
Sor Juana brings in the issue of silence wherever she
can in the Reply, as illustrated above. Clearly, on one
level, the first line indicates that she does not believe
she needs to justify her critique of Viera's sermon to
the bishop/Sor Philothea. But, on a more literal level,
"I do not know" passes for "ignorance." Following her
juxtaposition of silence and ignorance she reintroduces
the third, and ever-popular, element in her stylistic
scheme of submission and subversion: (false) humility.
Throughout the Reply, silence, ignorance, and humility
form a sort of triptych, the building blocks of Sor
Juana's rhetorical stockpile. This ammunition allows her
to hide behind "gratitude" and "humility" ("only with the
assurance of your favor . can I dare to talk to with
Your Greatness") while she takes aim at the bishop with
her thinly disguised "ignorance" ("If I speak nonsense,

forgive me"). The last line reveals that Sor Juana has
no intent of letting the bishop's admonishments go
without a rebuttal; the rest of her Reply will be devoted
to refuting the bishop's arguments, which will garner Sor
Juana more praise.
All in all, the sanctions and cloistering of the
Council of Trent undeniably impacted nuns' writing. But
these same restrictions prompted them to launch their
attacks, under the guise of irony and false humility,
against the patristic belief system.

Gender and Censorship: Influences on the Writing of the
Reply to Sor Philothea
While the Church represented a significant influence
on the life and works of Sor Juana, social/political
factors contributed to the nun writer's struggle as well.
It was not a Marxist government that suffocated Sor
Juana, as Paz speciously contends, but the fact that she
was a scholarly woman in a society intolerant of such
women, a woman writing in exile. The problem of
excluding and excommunicating women from intellectual
life clearly has more to do with gender than with
political systems. First and foremost, the sex of an
intellectual thinker determines his/her place in and
value to a society.

Smith, in defining the relationship between the
female autobiographer and her subject (herself),
reinforces the importance of genderspecifically, the
relationship of the autobiographer to the arena of public
life and discourseas a critical factor in the
evaluation of any particular autobiography. She
considers gender to be a far more significant factor than
political systems,11 in terms of the influence on what
type of writing the female autobiographer produces:
patriarchal notions of woman's inherent
nature and consequent social role have
denied or severely proscribed her access
to the public space; and male distrust and
consequent repression of female speech
have either condemned her to public
silence or profoundly contaminated her
relationship to the pen as an instrument
of power. If she presumes to claim a
fully human identity by seeking a place in
the public arena, therefore, she
transgresses patriarchal definitions of
female nature by enacting the scenario of
male selfhood. As she does so, she
challenges cultural conceptions of the
nature of woman and thereby invites public
censure for her efforts. If she bows to
11Paz, on the other hand, maintains that the Church
sanctions and authorizations inflicted on Sor Juana because
of her writing represent the same forces behind censorship
in today's Marxist enclaves. He draws a parallel between
Sor Juana's becoming an accomplice to censors in her final
years and twentieth-century writers who have also become
their own accusers (6). While censorship exists to various
degrees in all societies throughout the world, Paz's
correlation is flawed. By expanding his argument to
include twentieth-century Marxist regimes, he discredits,
as does the black legend, the conditions leading to Sor
Juana's denigration by her critics.

the discursive pressure for anonymity,
however, she denies her desire for a voice
of her own. (7-8)
Time and time again, Sor Juana's contemporary critics
and her subsequent biographers denigrate the woman and
the scholar through purely gender-based attacks. The
practice of excluding writers and scholars from the
literary canon because of gender manifests itself in many
ways, as will be demonstrated in an analysis of the
dualisms of choice and defense in the Reply.
Events Surrounding the Writing of the Reply
The events surrounding the writing of the Reply
become critical to understanding the significance and
context of the letter. The bishop of Puebla, Manuel
Fernandez de Santa Cruz, initially wrote a letter
supremely praising Sor Juana's critique (Carta
atenaqorica) of a sermon given by Portuguese Jesuit
Antonio de Vieira (Paz 299). And then, the bishop turned
around and, in that same letter, admonished Sor Juana for
being so bold as to take issue with Father de Vieira's
sermon. In short, the bishop used religious doctrine to
minimize Sor Juana's critique, even though he admired
"the keenness of [her] concepts, the skill of [her]
proofs, and the vigorous clarity that lends conviction to

the subject, a quality inseparably linked with wisdom"
(Trueblood, "Admonishment: The Letter of Sor Philothea
de la Cruz" 199).
His main message dictates that scholarship undertaken
by a nun is fineand indeed, a fine cure for idleness
as long as it is sacred and not secular in nature. This
raises an interesting question: What was the bishop's
hidden agenda in admonishing Sor Juana for writing a
"secular" critique? One can infer from his letterwhich
admonishes Sor Juana for studying philosophy and poetry
and recommends that she should pick up, instead, the book
of Jesus Christthat he found the Carta antenegorica to
be an inappropriate piece of writing for a nun. "Letters
that breed arrogance God does not want in women," wrote
the bishop ("Admonishment ..." 200). The assumption
would be that Sor Juana, as a woman writing a logically-
sound and philosophic argument, overstepped the bounds
imposed upon her by her Church and society. (The Church
and seventeenth-century Mexican society prohibit her from
engaging in this type of analytical writing and thinking
because of her gender.) Therefore, she must be
admonished for her boldness/"narcissism" as well as for

writing an "unauthorized" critique.12 In other words, a
nun would be permitted to write and study as long as she
would not question, challenge, or reason, all strictly
"secular" undertakings that threaten the Church's
hierarchial, patristic order. Sor Juana, in taking up
her pen to author a critique, became a narcissist, while
Viera, in writing his sermon, became untouchable;
logic/secularism is valued only in the male religious.
And so, as the pen is mightier than the sword, Sor
raised her quill in defense and wrote the Reply. In
response to the letter written to her by Bishop Manuel
Fernandez de Santa Cruz, who used the alias of Sor
Philothea de la Cruz to disguise himself as a nun, Sor
Juana wrote the lengthy letter the Reply to Sor
Philothea. This is among her best-known works and is a
testimony to the heightened dualism of choice and defense
in her work, a most real and difficult paradox for the
nun writer to manage. Peden calls the Reply "an
impassioned, carefully reasoned, occasionally pedantic,
defense of the historical and spiritual rights of women
to study, to teach, and to write. It is the first such
statement in our hemisphere" ("Sor Juana Ines de la
12According to the bishop's letter, there is an
inclination to vanity and presumptuousness in the female
sex (200).

Cruz's Respuesta a Sor Filotea" 7). The letter remains,
in many ways, Sor Juana's most triumphant victory over
advocates of the black legend.
However, before looking at the critics' responses to
the Reply. and Sor Juana's own counter-reply (the text of
her letter), two historical details that speak to the
issue of gender need to be addressed. First, why did
Bishop Fernandez de Santa Cruz assume the persona of a
nun (Sor Philothea) when he wrote his letter praising and
defaming Sor Juana's critique of de Vieira's sermon? And
second, why did the bishop choose to publish Sor Juana's
critique of the sermon, incorporating his private letter
to her as the preface?
The bishop's letter indicates that he was
demonstrating a "refinement and extension of Paul's
injunction against public speech by women" (Sharon
Larisch, "Sor Juana's Apologia" 51). The bishop's
purpose in writing a transvestite reply was not to
disguise his identity; Sor Juana knew that she was
writing to the bishop when she wrote her Reply (Larisch
49).13 Rather, he intended to take St. Paul's injunction
one step further: to illustrate the notion that women's
13In a closing paragraph of the Reply. Sor Juana
engages in a word-play on the identity of the bishop,
revealing that she knows who he is. See Appendix A.

voices function as nothing more than mere mouthpieces for
men and men's words. Essentially, the bishop's
pseudonymous preface demonstrates that "[women's] private
speech doesn't belong to them and can be appropriated by
those permitted to speak publicly" (Larisch 51). This
interpretation, when viewed alongside historical
documentation by Paz on the subject of the publication,
certainly offers a valid explanation as to why the bishop
published his private letter as a preface to Carta
Paz suggests that the bishop published Sor Juana's
Carta with the intention of attacking and embarrassing
his rival, Francisco de Aguiar y Seijas, Archbishop of
Mexico, a member of the same clerical order as Vieira
(402). While the cause of the rivalry is insignificant
for the purpose of this study, it is sufficient to note
that the bishop was, indeed, using a female alias with
the intention of appropriating a woman's words, albeit a
fictitious woman (Sor Philothea), for a man's (the
bishop's) purpose. And thus, the phenomenon of the
"woman as mouthpiece" is at work: the bishop's letter
materializes into a published preface to Sor Juana's
Carta. The bishop's usurping of Sor Philothea's words,
and also Sor Juana's words (he, of course, references the

text of the Carta in his/Sor Philothea's letter),
represents the notion that women's speech and, by
extension, women's bodies, do not belong to them and can
be utilized by men for their purposes.
Sor Juana's "debate" with the Bishop supports the
contention that gender ranks above other considerations,
religious and political, in terms of primary relevance to
evaluating the plight of independent thinkers who are
shut out by closed societieswhether because of gender,
race, or religion. Sor Juana was first and foremost
attacked for being a woman by her critics, be they her
contemporaries or successors. And while she was
condemned, by some, as a religious heretic, this was only
a secondary violation. Her first and most serious
offense remains: she was a woman with a voice society
didn't condone.
Explication of the Reply
Definitely cunning, the Reply is riddled with the
masochism of the martyred nun as well as the defenses of
the able scholar. Sor Juana builds her argumentsastute
and logically-grounded in Aristotlean logicin tongue-
in-cheek style. What Paz says about another piece of Sor
Juana's writing, the Carta (another letter), rings true
of the Reply:

Sor Juana is writing for a small group and
knows that none of her barbs will pass
unnoticed. . [And she] is a true
intellectual pugilist. Fortunately, she
never abandons either good manners or
irony. (390)
In short, the Replywith its biting irony and
dialectical defenses of the right of women to education
and culturemakes for fascinating reading.
Sor Juana constructs a number of arguments in support
of her studies and writing. She uses logical appeals as
well as the rhetoric of her religious heritage to build
her case on several levels. Aristotelian logic,
references to Biblical scholars, and the language of
irony and humility aid Sor Juana in her defense. Through
her reasoning, she documents: her need, and right, to
pursue secular scholarship; her utilization of the
convent as a "room of one's own"; her legacy of learned
and literary women; and finally, her plea for the
education of all women.
The text of the Reply is significant for Sor Juana
scholars; as autobiography it reveals much about the
author. And, as well, as a treatise for the rights of
women it offers much to literary historians, especially
feminists. The Reply merits to be ranked with Mary
Wollstonecraft1s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and
Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. Although Sor

Juana's work is substantially shorter than the other two
pieces, the Reply should be viewed alongside
Wollstonecraft's and Woolf's epic works because all three
promote a woman's pursuit of and right to knowledge.
The similarities end, however, with the thematic
treatments. Stylistically, Sor Juana's characteristic
irony and false humility is at odds with the ever-present
religious self-vilification and martyrdom in her works.
While Wollstonecraft1s and Woolf's works are more
straightforward, Sor Juana's elaborate devices prove
crucial to- developing the tone of the Reply.
Irony and the humility pose advance the arguments of
the self-effacing and martyred text. The juxtaposition
of the duplicitous narratorwho is both the satirical,
yet humble, servant of God and the ardent advocator of
women's rightsgives credence to the Reply as a work
committed to this dialectic of choice and defense. In
essence, Sor Juana has ingeniously scripted her voice as
one that speaks on two levels: as a thinker (the voice
of abstraction, crying out for the rights of all women to
knowledge) and a persecuted nun (the voice of reality,
pleading for Sor Juana's right to her secular
scholarship). After all, Sor Juana must defend herself
as well as her career in the letter.

Some of the most powerful lines in the Reply center
around the broader theme of women and knowledge. While
Sor Juana's references to silence in the Reply challenge
the doctrine of holy ignorance, she also makes the
argument that women's silence "speaks" for all women.
"Of those things that cannot be spoken," writes Sor Juana
in the Reply, "it must be said that they cannot be, to
make clear that keeping silent does not mean having
nothing to say, but rather that words cannot encompass
all there is to say." Nowhere in her letter to the
bishop/Sor Philothea does she script more eloquently or
deliberately her appeal for women's silence and its
secret powers. Here she cautionsas when she says that
silence, although a "negative" thing, does say something
by its very virtue of saying "nothing"that there is
more to silence than meets the eye, or ear. Because
women have been silenced for so long, Sor Juana argues,
they have kept quiet; but, this does not mean that they
have had no thoughts. Neither does this imply that their
silence makes them ignorant, as Church dogmatists, as
upholders of the doctrine of holy ignorance, presume and,
in fact, require. On the contrary, she insists that
women have so much to say that "words cannot encompass
all there is to say." Sor Juana serves as a spokesperson

on behalf of all women, religious and lay, in this
testimony to women1s intelligence and the power behind
women's silent words.
By asserting women's intelligence, she opposes the
notion of women's ignorance. Indeed, the text of Sor
Juana's Reply serves as the ultimate demonstration of her
intelligence. In response to the Sor Philothea's plea
that she devote less time to secular literature (the
"humanities" or the "slaves of sacred studies," the
bishop writes), Sor Juana, once again, employs false
humility and irony to come to her aid:
Even if these studies were to be viewed,
my Lady, as to one's credit (as I see they
are indeed celebrated in men), none would
be due me, since I pursue them
Sor Juana appears to be making yet another statement
about her lack of ability. But, by mentioning that
learning is valued in men but not in women, she
transforms this self-denigration of her talents into a
plea for the recognition of all women of letters.
In a similar vein, Sor Juana formulates a brilliant
argument that challenges the presumptuous wisdom of men;
and, as well, she goes so far as to accuse these feigned
wise men of heresy. Much as she contested in an earlier
passage that a woman's silence is not a condition of her

ignorance, she later asserts that men, merely because
they are men, are not necessarily wise:
the interpretation of Holy Scripture
should be forbidden not only to women,
considered so very inept, but to men, who
merely by virtue of being men consider
themselves sages, unless they are very
learned and virtuous, with receptive and
properly trained minds. Failure to do so,
in my view, has given rise precisely to
all those sectarians and been the root
cause of all the heresies. For there are
many who study in order to become
ignorant, especially those of an arrogant,
restless, and overbearing turn of
mind . [who] until they have
utteredsomething heretical merely in order
to say what no one else has, they will not
This passage illustrates how skillfully Sor Juana avoids
giving a direct reply to the bishop's urgings that she
devote more of her study to religious subjects.
Throughout the Reply. Sor Juana never concedes that she
spends more of her scholarly efforts on secular writing.
To the contrary, she carefully defends herself and her
position, offering up rhetorically-sound arguments by
redirecting the bishop's accusatory claims. Sor Juana
shifts the focus of his accusations from her to the truly
culpablethose arrogant and heretical men. And yet she
continues to be accused by her critics of being
narcissistic (Paz 507). How can a woman's need for self-
justification in a male society be considered

narcissistic? These very critics mistake the satirical
qualities and analytical proofs in the letter for
narcissism and go on to deny the humility, masked in
irony but humble in self-justification nevertheless,
inherent in the Reply. Such criticism, by Pfandl
particularly, is wholly short-sighted and sexist.
An explication of the Reply reveals how Sor Juana's
critics have misjudged her use of humility/irony and
self-justification, by labelling her prose narcissistic.
As Sor Juana's primary purpose in writing the letter to
the bishop is to defend herself and her position as a nun
who writes, a posture of self-defense develops via
recurrent statements of self-devaluation; these do not
elevate Sor Juana's status to that of a martyr/narcissist
but, rather, serve to skillfully point up her "right to
the pen." She cleverly twists her arguments, as
demonstrated in the forthboming excerpts, so that unless
the reader is astute, many of her points will be taken
only at face value rather! than for their true, intrinsic
meaning. j
In countering the bishop's admonishment of her
secular writing, Sor Juana offers some seemingly
inoffensive defenses which are, in actuality, brilliant
illustrations of her use bf humility and irony. In this

passage, she builds on one innocuous claim (one the
bishop would have difficulty arguing against) by
following with a series of Aristotelian questions that
lead her to defend her right to write:
The censure [which she incurs for secular
writing], iusta vel iniusta. timenda non
est [whether deserved or not, is not to be
feared], for it does not interfere with
communion and attending mass, whence it
concerns me little or not at all. For, in
the opinion of the very people who slander
me for writing, I am under no obligation
to be learned nor do I possess the
capacity never to err. Therefore my
failure involves neither fault nor
discredit: no fault since there is not
chance of my not erring and ad
impossibilia nemo tenetur [no one is
obliged to attempt the impossible].
(Reply 209)
Sor Juana devalues her intellect or, rather, casts off
all of her talents; she goes on to write, "I have never
thought of myself as possessing the intelligence and
educational background required of a writer" (Reply 209).
While such statements belittling her abilities are on
one level self-indicting, Sor Juana, having set herself
up as an incompetent writer of secular literature, then
proceeds to denounce her religious writing even more
zealously, which leads the second level of argument:
my usual reply to those who urge me on,
especially where sacred matters are
involved, [is]: what aptitude have I,
what preparation, what subjects, what
familiarity do I possess for such a task,
beyond a handful of superficial

sophistries? Let such things be left to
those who understand them; I want no
trouble with the Holy Office. I am
ignorant and I shudder to think that I
might utter some disreputable proposition
or distort the proper understanding of
some passage or other.
What Sor Juana accomplishes by arguing for her
incompetence but, at the same time, demonstrating her
learning with her writing is to guard herself against
charges of heresy and vanity as well as to expose the
hypocrisy of the tenets of holy ignorance. She must
protect her position, establishing herself as inept and
harmless (not intentionally committing heresy or scheming
against the Church). After all, how can someone who is
uneducated in the subjects of the Church (recall that
religious learning was deemed more worthy and
"intellectual" than secular knowledge in seventeenth-
century Mexico) commit heresy? In other words, one must
deduce from Sor Juana's enthymeme that if she, as a nun
unworthy of sacred knowledge, commits heresy, it is of no
fault of her own, as she lacks the appropriate knowledge
to knowingly advance heretical claims.
Although the style of the Reply suggests an
insincerity, how this insincerity will be read depends on
the reader. Black legend critics have interpreted Sor
Juana's Reply as a work of deception and an expression of

her narcissism. And while such a reading does see
through the feigned humility of the piece, it fails to
get at the real substance. Yes, the Reply does deceive,
but in doing so Sor Juana protects her position, and, as
well, finds her voice in writing. Once again, Sor Juana
has been misread.
But a shrewder reader would recognize the true
meaning and strength of her deception. These passages
demonstrate how Sor Juana's humble statements are really
clever, ironic disclaimers that deem her incapable of
heresy because of her ignorance, a holy ignorance to
which she is bound (by the Council of Trent). Of course,
the irony of her argument (and those who see through her
enthymeme will realize that all nuns are not ignorant) is
that Sor Juana is not ignorant at all, but rather quite
capable of scrutinizing Church doctrine. Whether taking
up the pen to write a sacred lettersuch as her Carta
antenagorica. and here the very notion of a nun
critiquing a Jesuit's sermon in and of itself must have
been viewed as a heretical act at the timeor a piece of
secular prose, Sor Juana knows how to mask meaning with
humility. This ability is precisely what black legend
critics find so reprehensible in Sor Juana. They
discredit her skill because they detest her boldness; she

is, after all, first and foremost a woman. Instead of
seeing the mastery behind her brilliant work of self-
defense, they label her a "narcissist" because she steps
beyond the bounds of the male definition of "feminine
narcissism" by tackling a male domainreasoned argument.
Sor Juana ends this series of logical arguments on a
final ironic note when she states: "My purpose in
studying is not to write, much less to teach (this would
be overbearing pride in my case), but simply to see
whether studying makes me less ignorant" (Reply 210).
This humility proves necessary not only to Sor Juana's
self-justification but to her defense of women in
general. On one level the letter is Sor Juana's defense
of herself and her own scholarly pursuits, but on another
level it is a defense of the rights of all women to an
education. Sor Juana was attacked by the Bishop above
all for being a woman. The bishop realizes that by
admonishing Sor Juana for writing, he is condemning all
women who write.
And the notion that women should not write comprises
the bulk of his letter. After briefly admiring her
critique of the Jesuit's sermon, he then proceeds to
reference Saint Paul's doctrine that "women should not
teach," implying that the problem with women who study is

Pfandl, Ludwig. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. la decima
musa de Mexico: su vida. su poesia. su psioue.
Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico,
Schons, Dorothy. Some Bibliographical Notes on Sor Juana
Ines de la Cruz. Austin: University of Texas Press,
Smith, Sidonie. A Poetics of Women's Autobiography:
Marcrinalitv and the Fictions of Self-representation.
Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.
Trueblood, Alan S., trans. A Sor Juana Anthology.
Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.
Woolf, Virginia. The Diarv of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne
Olivier Bell. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
Inc., 1977.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. San Diego:
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1929.
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. New York: Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1966.
Woolf, Virginia. Women and Writincr. New York: Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1904.

that they may grow vain and try to pass on what they have
learned.14 The bishop notes that Saint Paul "does not
order women not to study so as to grow wiser. He wished
only to preclude any risk of presumptuousness in our [the
female] sex, inclined as it is to vanity" ("Admonishment:
The Letter of Sor Philothea de la Cruz," Trueblood,
trans., 200). Here the premise is vanity, that is,
narcissism thinly veiled, in a woman will not be
tolerated because women are to remain non-entities
(without narcissuses/egos): they are to remain silent.
The bishop's next objection to Sor Juana's writing is
based on content. He states: "Letters that breed
arrogance God does not want in women. But the Apostle
does not reject them so long as they do not remove women
from a position of obedience" ("Admonishment ..." 200).
Clearly, the crux of the bishop's argument rests on his
supposition that women who write must write what men have
sanctioned as "obedient writing." Nuns, he asserts,
should not write secular literature, as the purpose of
this sort of writing wanders too far from religious
writing, a.k.a., the writing of obedience. He emphasizes
that "scholarship not devoted to Christ Crucified is
14Saint Paul wrote: "But I suffer not a woman to teach
[nor to use authority over the man but to be in silence]"
(1 Tim. 2:12).

folly and sheer vanity" ("Admonishment ..." 201). As a
final admonishment to Sor Juana, the bishop relates that
"It is a pity that so great a mind should stoop to lowly
earthbound knowledge and not desire to probe into what
transpires in heaven" and advises her to "Move on now,
like the great Boethius, to edifying [religious]
subjects" ("Admonishment ..." 202).15
But even the bishop's objection to Sor Juana's, and
all nuns', secular writing is predicated on his belief
that secular knowledge is vain ("folly and sheer
vanity"), again a premise tied to the whole notion of
women's silence. His argument is based on these
assumptions: because vanity acknowledges the existence
of an ego/narcissus, and by extension the formation of a
voice, then vanity and writing are intolerable in a
female because she is to be silent, surrendering her ego
15And although the Church dictated that male clerics
were, as well, to produce religious and obedient writings,
they were freer to stray from them than their female
counterparts. This assumption can be made because, as Sor
Juana says, some men, even though they may not be
particularily bright but because their gender deems them
wise, will write just about anything to get attention;
their arrogance affords them opportunities to freely
express themselves. By extension, these men are more apt
than women to commit acts of heresy, and these are likely
to be viewed as examples of "secular thinking," because men
are prone to be driven by their "arrogant, restless, and
overbearing" minds. Women, on the other hand, since they
are thought "inept" have fewer opportunities to write,

to the male. And, therefore, the reader concludes that
she appeased the bishop/Sor Philothea with her
confessionary-like appeals (such as her prayers that God
would aid her in abandoning her studies) in order to
remain within the necessary bounds of expected behavior
for a nun.
The following passage supports this claim via the use
of its language, once more, riddled with the same kind of
ambiguity (irony masked in pious humility) seen so often
before in the Reply. What Sor Juana describes is how she
arrives at a compromise: she performs her required
duties only to "keep the sisters quiet," to prevent them
from "tattling" and accusing her of ignoring or
neglecting them because she devotes too much time to her
studies. Here, once again, she writes of how time spent
with her sisters cuts into time spent with her books:
As I owe to God, among other good things,
so gentle and accommodating a nature, and
the nuns are so fond of me on account of
it (and kindly overlook my faults) and
thus greatly enjoy my company, it would
often happen that, aware of this and
spurred on by my great love for them (more
understandable than theirs for me), during
the free time we both had, I would go and
comfort them and relax in their company.
I realized that at such times I was
necrlectinq mv study [emphasis added] and
so made a vow not to enter a single cell
unless obedience or charity required it of
me. . Knowing my frailty, I would
make this vow for a month or a fortnight
and then, allowing myself a recess of a

day or two, I would renew it. The free
day was intended not so much to give me a
rest as to prevent their considering me
unbending, withdrawn, and unappreciative
of the undeserved affection of those
dearest sisters [emphasis added]. (218)
The statement Sor Juana makes here is two-fold; on one
level she cleverly tells the bishop what he wants to
hear, that she is devoted to religious life, while on
another level she again stresses the importance of
writing her own voice with her text.
In the paragraph that follows the above passage, she
writes; "This shows only too clearly the strength of my
inclination. Blessed be God for his will to direct it
toward learning and not toward some vice or other that
would have proved all but irresistible to me" (218). It
is interesting to note that Sor Juana seems to contradict
her earlier statements, from the preceding page of her
text (217), when she protests that visits by fellow nuns
keep her from her work. Why would she change her story a
page later and write of her devotion to her sisters and
of how she has to restrain herself from socializing with
them because it keeps her from her studies? One
plausible explanation would be that she felt the need to
appease the bishop and temper her strong inclination to
write by citing her love and devotion to her sisters.
But regardless, Sor Juana continually reiterates the

importance of her vocation to letters in the Reply, even
if, many times, she apologizes for her scholarly
interests. At those moments, it is almost as if she
assumes the role of the penitent and the bishop/Sor
Philothea the role of her priest.
Sor Juana takes up yet another approach in delivering
her self-defense: she provides a fine illustration of
what Woolf meant by the statement, "For we think back
through our mothers if we are women" (A Room of One's Own
79). Sor Juana looks back through her own legacy of
learned and literate mothers; she devotes more than two
pages of her text to the women who have influenced her
and given wing to her female muse. She pays homage to
the Biblical women of renown as well as to those of
ancient Greece, ending her list with a reference to three
of her contemporaries, "the great Christina Alexandra,
Queen of Sweden, as learned as she is courageous and
great-hearted, and their Excellencies the Duchess of
Aveiro and the Countess of Villaumbrosa" (229).16
16Trueblood annotates: "The Swedish queen (1626-1689),
shortly after abdicating the throne in 1654, converted to
Catholicism, was baptized Alexandra, and was received with
great ceremony at Rome. She had a lively lifelong interest
in the arts and sciences. Maria Guadalupe Alencastre,
Duchess of Aveiro, a Portuguese contemporary of Sor Juana,
was called "Mother of the Missions" because of her
benefactions to the Jesuit missions of Mexico. The
unidentified Countess of Villaumbrosa may be included out
of courtesy" (229).

Like Woolf, Sor Juana's "look back through her
mothers" represents a figurative manifesto for the right
of women to scholarship and the pen. Such philosophic
statements empower womennot always in actuality,
because the dominant male culture often silences women,
but in spiritto aspire to follow in the footsteps of
these role models. Those women who came before Sor Juana
laid the groundwork for her, allowing her to assert
herself in ways that the older "mothers" could not have.
Moreover, the spiritual guidance and learned legacy of
her predecessors enabled her to challenge the patriarchal
concepts and dogma of seveenteenth-century Mexico. With
the Reply. Sor Juana constructs an argument that not only
defends her right to knowledge and the pen but also the
right of all women, past, present, and future, to such
The Marriage of Narcissism and Humility in the Reply
In the bishop's censure we see a traditional view of
female narcissism, using feminist criticism we arrive at
a different interpretation. Throughout the Reply Sor
Juana masterfully employs the use of her autobiographical
persona, her "I" or "yo" in Spanish, to establish her
power and authority, which she achieves by several means.

She constructs her convincing arguments of self-
defense via the self-denigrating and humble pleas of a
"poor nun, the least of all the world's creatures" (Reply
206). The passages explicated in the previous section
reveal that Sor Juana's effacement, denigration,
andnegation of her I/vo preserved her position through a
"false" humility.
Furthermore, Sor Juana's dissimilated voice in the
Reply mimics Echo's; they both script their defenses via
a crippled language of humility and irony (Merrim 115).
As Echo, Sor Juana seeks the unification of her body and
voice. The Reply counteracts the plot by the bishop,
whowhen he published Sor Juana's Carta with his
admonishment as a prefacetried to steal the voice from
the body, hoping to inscribe it in the institionalized
literature of the Church.
Sor Juana's yo, bounded by humility and narcissism,
embodies the paradoxical qualities of a Narcissistic self
pride and Echo-like humiliation (Merrim 115). The
conjoining of such disparate elements contributes to the
ever-present ironic dialogue (between the humble and
narcissitic yo) and to the larger issue of Sor Juana's
dualistic struggle, defending her choice to write.

Her yo, while skillfully blurring the boundaries
between humility and narcissismin essence, fusing two
paradoxical entitiesenables Sor Juana to create her
martyred text. Sor Juana's use of the yo represents an
instrumental achievement in the history of nun's
religious writing. In the tradition of the metaphor of
the religious martyr, she establishes herself as the
victim. An excellent illustration of this function of
her yo appears in a passage revealing the dualistic
nature of her reply: on a literal level, she responds to
the bishop's contention that she devote herself to
secular literature and, on a metaphorical level, she
addresses the issue of women's silence. In this way, her
humble apology becomes a means of writing her body (her
text) in spite of the repercussions and repudiations:
Then how should I dare to take this into
my unworthy hands, when my sex, age, and
especially my way of life all oppose it?
And so I confess that many times this fear
has taken the pen from my hand and caused
the subject to sink back into the very
mind from which it sought to emerge.
In the first line, Sor Juana adopts the language of the
persecuted nun. She downplays her ability and
disinclination to write on sacred topics with a humble
plea: how can she, as a woman and a nun ("[her] way of
life"), be expected to produce religious writings when

her society (with its patristic Church and culture)
prohibits her from teaching and/or interpreting? The
fact that the majority of Sor Juana's famous works are
all secular indicates several things: she was not as
interested in writing religious material as she was in
writing secular literature and she probably would have
been condemned a heretic much sooner if she had written
primarily on religious subjects, since the very notion of
a woman critiquing Scriptures or other such texts would
be abhorent to Church dogmatists. Indeed, it was Sor
Juana's critique of the Jesuit Veira's sermon that led
the bishop to publicly humiliate and admonish her.
The second line, however, embeds, for enternity, Sor
Juana's plea in the minds' of all readers. The power
behind "And so I confess that many times this fear has
taken the pen from my hand and caused the subject to sink
back into the very mind from which it sought to emerge"
reflects Sor Juana's, and other women authors', struggle
to write. In essence, this retraction represents a
physical silencing of her body and its natural reflex of
taking up a pen.
All of the trials and tribulations that Sor Juana
endured in her lifetime culminated with the Reply. In an
act similar to the women of the Middle Ages, three years

after writing the Reply. Sor Juana becomes the epitome of
the self as suffering martyr, "retreat[ing] into ascetic
and fervent monastic dedication" (Arenal, "This Life"
202). In the three years between the Reply and her
retreat, she wrote very little (Arenal, "This Life" 202).
Perhaps the most poignantly bitter portrayal of her
final struggle and ensuing self-sacrifice comes mid-way
through the letter, as Sor Juana, once again, defends
herself against her assailants:
Those most harmful and painful to me are
not the persons who have pursued me with
open hatred and ill-will, but those who,
while loving me and wishing me well . .
have mortified and tortured me much more
than the others, with their: "This study
is incompatible with the blessed ignorance
to which you are bound. You will lose
your way, at such heights your head will
be turned by your very perspicacity and
sharpness of mind." What have I not gone
through to hold out against this? Strange
sort of martyrdom, in which I was both the
martyr and my own executioner! (Reply
In this passage we witness the dialectic of the duelling
forces of choice and defensehere, in full combat. Sor
Juana exercises her choice to be an intellectual, defends
herself, and yet realizes she will be devoured for
transcending the limits imposed upon her by her society.
The oppressors condemn her for utilizing her god-given
gift of intellect and tell her that by using her mind she

will go crazyas many intellectual women of the past
were fated by society to do.
In fact, shortly after writing the Reply. Sor Juana
fulfills the prophesy of her own words by actually
becoming "both the martyr and [her] own executioner." At
the end of her life, she gives in to her accusers and
becomes their allies: she sells her library of some four
thousand volumes, abandons her studies, and goes to work
among the poor of the provinces, where she dies attending
the sick during an epidemic. And yet, the desperation of
the above passage from the Reply painfully asserts that
there existed no other exit for the seventeenth-century
scholarly Mexican nun, only the dead-end path of the
self-destructing martyr.
It is no coincidence that Sor Juana's life as a
writer ends after the Reply. Although her body and voice
do not reach an audience, because the social and
religious censorship of seventeenth-century Mexico would
not permit her one, the Reply still asserts Sor Juana as
a powerful author and voice. A feminist perspective
reveals her personally-inscribed testimony of the fight
to write herself and constructs a positive
representation of women's bodies. As a writer in
isolation, and one without an audience, Sor Juana's

silence emerges as a creative force, thus redefining
patriarchal concepts of women's silence. An ultimate
defense of self, the Reply vindicates Sor Juana, serving
to reinscribe the way women, women's writing, and women's
bodies are read. Finally, a feminist assessment of her
great autobiographical letter invalidates specious
interpretations by the black legend and offers new
insight into reading Sor Juana.
The Reply, a beautiful tribute to the trials and
successes of one nun, echoes a message that transcends
centuries. Sor Juana calls out to women and demands that
they hear her voice, the voice of female narcissism, the
triumph of the oppressed (the "voiceless" female) over
the oppressor (the dominant voice of male culture). The
writing of the Reply represents the triumph of one woman,
and by extension all women, over silence. Sor Juana
rewrote patriarchal concepts by challenging and, indeed,
refusing to accept the vow of holy ignorance.

"Hombres necios aue acusais11: Sor Juana's Poem in Defense
of Women
An expression of Sor Juana's defiant independence and
freedom of thought, "Hombres necios que acusais," as
Woolf's A Room of One's Own, rejects the act of male
appropriation of the "feminine" and the ensuing
objectification. This famous poem in defense of women
provides much insight into the genius of Sor Juana and
her astute and bold writing. The poem, which rails
against men for perpetrating injustices on women, is
distinctly "modern" in tone and content. Each stanza
consists of acrid descriptions of male-female relations,
all of which depict sexual interactions. The bitter rage
embedded in each of the stanzas gives way to something
larger and wholly remarkable: Sor Juana exposes men as
if they were all exhibitionists, leaving them to defend

themselves. And they emerge defenseless in their
Sor Juana rattles the reader's consciousness in this
poem, especially the male consciousness; and, as she
scrutinizes the abuses/injustices in male/female
relationships, she exposes the hypocrisy of a double
standard (known today as the madonna/prostitute
syndrome). By challenging the male value system, she
overturns a prevalent notion of her day: instead of
labeling the woman who "gives in" to a man's sexual
urging a whore, she places the bulk of the blame on the
man, deeming him guilty and responsible for his actions
because he created the value system that "traps" women
into being either a virgin or a whore (an impossible dual
reality). Ultimately, Sor Juana gives the female back
her narcissus, empowering the "feminine" by uniting the
female's body with her words, that is, via the sexually
inscribed text.17
17In "Laugh of the Medusa," Cixous writes that a woman
writing "physically materializes what she's thinking; she
signifies it with her body. In a certain way she inscribes
what she's saying. . ." (251). Essentially, a woman
writing writes "her-story." And because the female writer
of the sexually inscribed text does not ascribe to dominant
male discourse notions of "his-story"the male-inscribed
textshe becomes whole by rejecting the traditional
separation of body and voice.

In this way she rebels against the dual reality
created by men that keeps her writing repressed. But she
succeeds, in spite of constrictive patriarchal notions
about females, to join woman's body and voice by
inscribing a tradition of her own; by redefining the
relationships between mother and daughter and mother and
sons, Sor Juana establishes that a woman's body is not
bad, but, rather, that woman's body is a positive force
that gives rise to woman's voice. And it is precisely
because she finds woman's voice that Sor Juana is able to
transcend the limits of the male system.
In contrast to the Reply, a personally-inscribed
private letter published posthumously, "Hombres" had the
potential to reach audiences of seventeenth-century
Mexico and the rest of the Spanish-speaking world.
However, because the content, form, and style of her
works represent the concept of the sexually inscribed
text and "write woman," Sor Juana's writing was beyond
the grasp of the majority of seventeenth-century readers.
Only recently, in our century, have her works become,
once again, widely read. But today Sor Juana and her
writing stand a much greater chance of being appreciated
and understood.

"Hombres" illustrates how she reunites the feminine
body and voice. A reflection of her fascination with
male and female relationships, the poem's juxtaposition
of images and bitingly indignant stylistic devices serve
to provide for Sor Juana's rejection of traditional
notions of the feminine. She forges her own single,
feminine voicea voice that speaks on behalf of all
women. In other words, for Sor Juana, as for Cixous,
writing empowers and defines the female narcissus by
creating a distinctly female text, one which asserts
female values and joins the feminine body with feminine
words, and, thus, overturns traditional definitions of
the female narcissus and woman's writing.
Historical and Psychological Background for Reading
Before undertaking a feminist historical explication
of "Hombres," in order to understand and fully appreciate
Sor Juana's great poem, the historical and psychological
influences contributing to her text merit examination.
First and foremost, as "Hombres" is primarily concerned
with male perceptions of the female and as Sor Juana is a
nun writing about male/female relationships, the persona
of the Virgin Mary figures strongly as the ideal feminine
role model in the reading and interpretation of the poem.

Clearly, any analysis of the poem that excludes the
impact of the symbolism and literature of the Madonna on
the author and the text would be shortsighted. However,
in this poem, because she challenges the long-standing
notion that women are inferior to men by bringing the men
to task for their unjust actions against women, she
reconstructs notions of the feminine, specifically those
pertaining to the madonna/prostitute syndrome.
Although Sor Juana's devotion to the Virgin would be
expected, what is not necessarily obvious or greatly
appreciated is her contribution to revising/rewriting
"feminine" roles through her position as "cultivator of
the Marian cult" (Lavrin 84). While, historically,
popular devotion to Mary can be traced back to the fifth
century in Europe (Michael Carroll, The Cult of the
Virgin Mary 5), the appearance of La Virgin de Guadalupe
to Juan Diego in 1531 did much to step up popular
devotion to Mary in Mexico. Sor Juana, as a propagator
of the Marian cult, was part of this rich religious
tradition of devotion to Mary. And yet, much of her
genius in revising/rewriting conceptions about Mary (a
role model that women cannot live up to because they
cannot be, at once, virgins and mothers) has gone

For instance, although Electa Arenal praises Sor
Juana's use of linguistic and theological conventions to
inscribe new, more feministic images of Mary, most of her
and other critics' work have concentrated on direct
references to Mary in the nun's work, such as those found
in her Eiercicios (religious prayers) and other largely
religious works. A feminist rereading of "Hombres," such
as I intend, offers a broader perspective: even in this
most secular of poems, Sor Juana is rewriting patriarchal
concepts, and thereby inscribing a female text laden with
new interpretations of the "feminine" and, by extension,
redefining some Marian concepts as wellparticularly,
the notion of the "good" versus the "other" or "bad"
In setting the stage for such a rereading, an
explanation, based on historical and psychological
interpretations, of the devotion to Mary, renders a
framework with which to view various aspects and
characteristics of male and female adoration of the
Virgin. At the heart of the Marian cult is the
representation of Mary as "the good female" versus "the
other or bad female" (Eve the seductress), a notion
particular to the Catholic religion/archetype (Carroll
34-35). In essence, this phenomenon, better known as the

"virgin/whore syndrome," sets up a pair of opposites from
which the female may "choose." Clearly, this binary
opposition prescribes a different set of values and
beliefs for female and male devotees. Carroll describes
the dilemma in this way:
in those areas where the Mary cult is
strong, females are encouraged to emulate
the Virgin Mary in both her roles, as
virgin and mother (cf. Warner, 1976). But
this means that the attitude of female
devotees toward Mary is quite different
from that of males. The latter, after
all, are not encouraged to be either
virgins or mothersand, in fact, the
machismo ideology works directly against
remaining a "virgin." (Carroll 58)
Surprisingly, this limited male identification with the
Virgin Mary has been, according to Carroll, one of "the
distinctive features of the Marian cult over the
centuries," in the form of the "son's strong but strongly
repressed sexual desire for his mother" (56).
Perhaps the reason for this "limited" appeal for
devotion among men is because, as Carroll documents,
there are several preconditions necessary for the
emergence of a strong Mary cult. They are:
1. A strong but strongly repressed desire
for the mother in sons.
2. The absence of cohesive kin groups,
generally not found in Latin Catholic
countries, that transcend the nuclear
family and that can serve as vehicles for
the discharge of excess sexual energy.

Another element that makes the Mary cult work is that
"Mary, unlike most of the mother goddesses in the world,
is disassociated from sexuality" (Carroll 35). As
Carroll explains:
Disassociating Mary from explicit sexual
intercourse is a way of effecting ... a
disguise [for the obsessive practice of
discharging sexual energy built up from
strongly repressed sexual desires, which
is necessary for the practice to be
effective; and, therefore,] excessive
devotion to a mother figure who is
disassociated from sexual intercourse
[becomes the not too obvious reflection of
a son's unconscious desire for his
mother]. (59)
What I will explore is how male and female devotion
to Mary and religious ideas about inter-sex relations
(mother and son, mother and daughter) impact on the
sexual relationships (man desiring virgin and whore/woman
as virgin or whore) described in "Hombres." I will
expand on Carroll's contention that men engage in
masochistic adoration (self-flagellation) of the Virgin
in countries where the Mary Cult is strong, Spain, Italy,
and Latin America, because of the guilt and need for
punishment they experience due to their sexual desires
for their mother (63).
I believe that Sor Juana in "Hombres" builds on such
a hypothesis: She asserts that because a man created the
double standard of the madonna/whore and because he

insists on seeing the woman who gives into his sexual
desires as a whore, he transfers his guilt (sexually
repressed guilt for desiring his mother) to the woman,
thereby making her the "bad one," not him. Sor Juana
demonstrates how the man must transform the woman into
someone "naughty" before he can have sexual relations
with her. In other words, once a woman submits to a
man's sexual desires, she becomes "bad"; and, the man
must maintain this image of her in order to find her
It's your persistent entreaties
that change her from timid to bold.
Having made her thereby naughty,
you would have her good as gold. (113)
The poet's uses "timid" to mean "good" and "bold" to
mean "bad," establishing that a woman may be good in her
own right but a man cannot accept her as such and needs
to make her "naughty" in order to "have her." Once
again, these lines underscore the fundamental meaning of
"Hombres": the double standard shapes all female roles
to suit male needs, here the labelling and
objectification of the sexually active woman as a whore.
The double standard functions as a tool of male dominance
over the woman, allowing the male to define and
appropriate the female body for his own use. This
practice of a male inscription of the female body results

in severing the female narcissus. In giving her body to
a man she also gives him her identity/narcissus; she has
no choice in the matter, as he has, by defining her body,
transformed her narcissus into something else, the object
of his sexual desire (the "fallen woman").
In other words, what can be inferred from the text of
"Hombres" is that men's repressed sexual desire for their
mothers is overtly expressed by men's insistence on the
double standard; if men cannot have sex with their
mothers then all they can do is to make two categories
out of women, virgins and whores, because this makes them
feel better about their sexual desires for their mothers.
And since Mary is an impossible role model (as Virgin and
mother), a woman can be only one or the other (virgin or
The Sexually Inscribed Text: A Feminist Reading of
Either way, a woman loses because she's playing a
man's game. Sor Juana drives home this point by
asserting that when it comes to male-female
relationships, the woman is always in a no-win situation:

With you, no woman can hope to score;
whichever way, she's bound to lose;
spurning you, she's ungrateful;
succumbing, you call her lewd. . .
What happy mean could there be
for the woman who catches your eye,
if, unresponsive, she offends,
yet whose complaisance you decry? (113)
In these passages Sor peels away another layer as
she dissects the male double standard:, not only do women
find themselves "trapped" in the snare of men's
doublespeak when they fulfill male desire, but they
flounder in the net when look the other way (either by
being "unresponsive" to or "spurning" male desire).
Sor Juana achieves with "Hombres" what Cixous
described as "break[ing] . the snare of silence"
(251). By challenging accepted notions of how men
perceive women and, conversely, how women view themselves
within a male value system, Sor Juana rejects the
standard order of her day; she refuses to be "conned into
accepting a domain which is the margin or the harem"
(Cixous 251). Creating the type of "feminine" writing
which Cixous describes in the "Laugh of the Medusa," Sor
Juana with "Hombres" writes woman and remakes the female
body into a female construct, thereby invalidating, as
well as finding appalling and unacceptable, the idea of

the female body as a male construct, by which man may
make woman into whatever he would wish (madonna/whore).
Sor Juana's first task in reaffirming and rejoining
woman's body with her words is to symbolically "undress"
men by exposing their unjust treatment of women. In
essence, she denies and refutes the validity of the male
view of the two sexual roles ascribed to women by writing
her own text, a female text which constructs her argument
by writing woman. Not giving into "the margin or the
harem," she leaves men utterly defenseless because they
are without their male text. Sor Juana, in writing
woman, writes on behalf of women, refusing to buy into
male beliefs.
And, in the process, she fashions her argument with
some brutally real images of men. The following analysis
reveals the men of "Hombres" to be far from innocuous in
their exhibitions. They are fiendish, albeit devilish,
as well as emotionally infantile. Two characteristics of
behavior/personalityabusiveness and emotional infancy
form the crux of Sor Juana's attack.
In only seventeen stanzas, the poet provides scathing
illustrations of those characteristics and demonstrates
how they are used to enforce certain double standards
(madonna/whore, woman as child), contributing to key

disparities in the balance of power between male and
female. Specifically, Sor Juana identifies that these
relationship inequities and injustices are rooted in a
double standard imposed by men to control women.
Sor Juana's poem presents elements of the
madonna/prostitute syndrome in every pointed stanza.
Although terse in form, "Hombres" delivers a supercharged
punch. Each stanza contains a succinct and powerful
criticism that operates independently of the next stanza,
but yet serves as a building block for a larger whole.
In its totality, "Hombres" resembles something like a
"madonna/prostitute pyramid." That is, the poemin its
entiretyforms a pyramid, the individual stanzas each
adding another level to the meaning of Sor Juana's
deconstruction of the double standard. The following
diagram illustrates this point:

Enforcers of the madonna/ Creators of a
prostitute double standard dual reality
Guilty & responsible for
abuse of women
"You batter her resistance down
and then, all righteousness, proclaim
that feminine frivolity,
not your persistence, is to blame."
(Stanza 3)
"With you, no woman can hope
to score;/ whichever way, she'
bound to lose;/ spurning you
she's ungrateful;/ succumbing,
you call her lewd." (Stanza 8)
"After you've won by urgent plea
the right to tarnish her good name,
you still expect her to behave
you, that coaxed her into shame."
(Stanza 2)
"For plain default of
common sense,/ could any
action be so queer/ as
oneself to cloud the
mirror,/ then complain tha
it's not clear?"
(Stanza 6)
"Silly, you menso very adept
at wrongly faulting womankind,
not seeing you're alone to blame
for faults you plant in woman's mind."
(Stanza 1)
"When it comes to
bravely posturing,/
your witlessness
must take the prize:/
you're the child that
makes a bogeyman,/ an
then recoils in fear
and cries."
(Stanza 4)

"Hombres" reflects each of these two levels of the
pyramid. An analysis of these two divisions illumes the
key elements of the poem.
Part I.: Men as Active Abusers of Women/Enforcers of
the Madonna/Prostitute Double Standard. Sor Juana begins
and ends her poem with an admonishment to men. I have
explained how the madonna/prostitute syndrome is a male
construct and now I will examine in further detail how
the system serves males needs, in terms of the historical
and psychological theories laid out in the beginning of
this chapter.
Sor Juana manages to walk a thin line in "Hombres":
while upholding the virtue of the Virgin, she manages to
offer a new, feminized alternative to the male double
standard. While she claims that it is best for a woman
to hold onto her virginity, she recognizes the
impossibility of this demand. The first stanza sets the
tone of accusation that runs throughout the poem:
Silly, you menso very adept
at wrongly faulting womankind,
not seeing you're alone to blame
for faults you plant in woman's mind. (Ill)
The telling lines of Sor Juana's fourth stanza
further illustrate this theme:
Presumptuous beyond belief
you'd have the woman you pursue
be Thais when you're courting her,
Lucretia once she falls to you. (Ill)

Here the poet aptly relates how men want women to gratify
their sexual desires and at the same time want women to
be chaste. The poet acutely points out the illogic and
insolence of such a proposal.
In the eleventh stanza Sor Juana defends the woman
who mirrors the Virgin and remains chaste, but, at the
same time, she never relinquishes her control over
placing the blame on the man:
Still, whether it's torment or anger
and both ways you've yourselves to blame
God bless the woman who won't have you,
no matter how loud you complain. (113)
Sor Juana seems to be saying that whatever the outcome of
his pleading, a man bears the burden of the "torment" and
"anger" he experiences, because he is the "guilty" one.
In essence, Sor Juana sees such behavior in men as
evidence of their emotional infancy. (Part II. explores
this phenomena in detail.)
In addition to reiterating her belief that men are
active abusers of women because they enforce the dual and
conflictive roles of the madonna/prostitute syndrome, Sor
Juana sees men as casting the woman into the subordinate
role of a child. As Sor Juana puts it, when a woman
submits to a man's sexual desires she becomes not only a
whore but also a child and slave, subjugated by and
subordinated to the man:

After you've won by urgent plea
the right to tarnish her good name,
you still expect her to behave
you, that coaxed her into shame. (Ill)
This stanza illustrates the total degradation and
humiliation that the woman incurs at the man's expense.
The poet then takes a step back to examine how a man
uses brute force to "break" the woman, that is, get her
to consent to sex. By emphasizing this point so
strongly, Sor Juana suggests that there is something more
to a man's persistent entreaties than mere seduction*
Both the third and final stanzas evoke images of force
and brutality, possibly suggesting that the man may do
much more than solicit sex, he may commit rape:
You batter her resistance down
and then, all righteousness, proclaim
that feminine frivolity,
hot your persistence, is to blame. . (Ill)
I well know what powerful arms
you wield in pressing for evil:
your arrogance is allied
with the world, the flesh, and the devil! (113)
By using the verb "batter"18 and the terms "powerful
arms,"19 Sor Juana characterizes the violence and force
with which men coerce women. Also, the poet skillfully
18The verb is "combatir" in the original Spanish text,
meaning "to attack or beat" (The New World Spanish/Encrlish.
Enclish/Soanish Dictionary 130).
"Muchas armas" in the original text.