Monday, August 1, 2011

Smart woman and wise words from 320 years ago

In 1691, a nun living in Mexico City (then under the Spanish Crown), wrote a long letter. Her words echoed for 320 years, and finally found their way to me this weekend, proving once again that S/he who writes well, lives forever.

Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz was a prodigy, but born of the wrong sex (or the right one from my perspective). At a time where educated women were practically nonexistant, a woman with curiosity and intellect is frowned upon, discouraged, and ridiculed. Sister Juana is one of the first feminist, a feminist by example. Although three centuries later, women's rights have advanced light years since her time, we still find that men feel more threatened by a smart woman than by a pretty one.

The letter Reply to Sister Filotea, is one part apology, one part autobiography, and one part argument against the status quo. Her writing rivals and even surpasses the best writers of her day. Her shewed arguments quoting everything from the Bible to classical texts from Greek and Latin, demonstrates the depth of her learning while her use of both logical arguments and rhetoric skills demonstrates the quickness of her wit.

In the letter she detailed how in her childhood she secretly learned to read at the age of 3, and her insatiable appetite for knowledge drives her inexorably towards learning. Apart from the woman who taught her how to read and write, she had no formal schooling since her parents rejected her idea of dressing up as a boy to attend school. Instead, she learned by herself, from books.

But what may be offered as an exoneration is that I undertook this great task without benefit of teacher, or fellow students with whom to confer and discuss, having for a master no other than a mute book, and for a colleague, an insentient inkwell...

The desire to learn is so strong within her, she thought of nothing else. At her time, the only path available to her is to become a nun, so that she can devote the most amount of time to learning and reading.

Her intelligence is such that she did achieve quite a bit of fame in her time. However it was not, in her words, [sailing] before the wind across calm seas for her as there were a number of aroused vipers, hissing their emulations and their persecutions. Of these persecutions she writes:

Whatever eminence, whether that of dignity, nobility, riches, beauty, or science, must suffer this burden; but the eminence that undergoes the most severe attack is that of reason... because it is the most defenseless, for riches and power strikes out against those who dare attack them; but not so reason, for while it is the greater it is more modest and long-suffering, and defends itself less...

And of those who attacks her, she writes:

One will abide, and will confess that another is nobler than he, that another is richer, more handsome, and even that he is more learned, but that another is richer in reason scarecely any will confess: Rare is he who will concede genius. That is why the assault against this virtue works to such profit.

A large part of the letter was devoted to arguing for the education of women. She argues that to properly understand the Bible, women will have to be taught languages, music, geometry, history, architecture, etc. And retorts, from a theological point of view, the words of the Apostle: Let women keep silence in the churches, does not prohibit women from learning and being taught in private. Furthermore, she shrewedly expounds:

... not only women, who are held to be so inept, but also men, who merely for being men believe they are wise, should be prohibited from interpreting the Sacred Word if they are not learned and virtuous and of gentle and well-inclined natures... For there are many who study but are ignorant, especially those who are in spirit arrogant, troubled and proud...

She also cites numerous examples of learned women in bibliocal, mythological, and historical examples, and these women of intelligence are both revered and respected. Afterwards she presents a very logical argument (given her time and values), for the education of women:

... because of the considerable idleness to which our poor women have been relegated, if a father desires to provide his daughters with more than ordinary learning, he is forced by necessity, and by the absence of wise elder women, to bring men to teach the skills... from which no little harm results, as is experienced every day in doleful example of perilous association... as that of familiarity with men, which quandary could be prevented if there were learned elder women...

Finally Sister Juana concludes that in the end, all her struggles have made her better instead of worse. She writes:

... I fear applause more than calumny, because the latter, with but the simple act of patience becomes gain, while the former requires many acts of reflection and humility and proper recognition so that it not become harm.

It never ceases to amaze me that her wisdom is as valid today as the day it was written. And her style of writing, is as fluid and graceful now as it was 320 years ago. In a single letter three centuries past Sister Juana proved that progress of humanity starts with the equality of the sexes.

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