Resource

A Nun Challenges the Patriarchy

This poem by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz highlights the hypocrisy of gender relations in Spanish colonial society.

Oil portrait of a nun wearing a black veil, a white habit with a devotional badge of the annunciation below her chin, sitting in an 18th century library, with a crucifix in her left hand, while her right hand rests on a book below several quills.
Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Nicolás Enríquez de Vargas, Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, ca. 1750. Chapultepec Castle.

Document Text

You foolish men who lay

the guilt on women,

not seeing you’re the cause

of the very thing you blame;

if you invite their disdain

with measureless desire

why wish they well behave

if you incite to ill.

You fight their stubbornness,

then, weightily,

you say it was their lightness

when it was your guile.

In all your crazy shows

you act just like a child

who plays the bogeyman

of which he’s then afraid.

With foolish arrogance

you hope to find a Thais

in her you court, but a Lucretia

when you’ve possessed her.

What kind of mind is odder

than his who mists

a mirror and then complains

that it’s not clear.

Their favor and disdain

you hold in equal state,

if they mistreat, you complain,

you mock if they treat you well.

No woman wins esteem of you:

the most modest is ungrateful

if she refuses to admit you;

yet if she does, she’s loose.

You always are so foolish

your censure is unfair;

one you blame for cruelty

the other for being easy.

What must be her temper

who offends when she’s

ungrateful and wearies

when compliant?

But with the anger and the grief

that your pleasure tells

good luck to her who doesn’t love you

and you go on and complain.

Your lover’s moans give wings

to women’s liberty:

and having made them bad,

you want to find them good.

Who has embraced

the greater blame in passion?

She who, solicited, falls,

or he who, fallen, pleads?

Who is more to blame,

though either should do wrong?

She who sins for pay

or he who pays to sin?

Why be outraged at the guilt

that is of your own doing?

Have them as you make them

or make them what you will.

Leave off your wooing

and then, with greater cause,

you can blame the passion

of her who comes to court?

Patent is your arrogance

that fights with many weapons

since in promise and insistence

you join world, flesh, and devil.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, You Foolish Men. Translation by Michael Smith. Courtesy of Poetry.org.

Background

Juana Inés de la Cruz was born in a small town near Mexico City in New Spain on November 12, 1651. She was an exceptionally intelligent child. She could read and write in Latin and Spanish when she was only three years old. She could compose classical poetry by age eight. By the time she was thirteen, Juana was a master of Greek logic and philosophy and was teaching Latin to other children in her community. She also taught herself to read and write Nahuatl, the language of the Indigenous people of Mexico.

Like most upper-class girls her age, Juana moved to the viceroy’s court in Mexico City when she was a teenager. Her intelligence impressed many of the colony’s elite. While living at court, Juana turned down many marriage proposals because she preferred to focus on her studies. In 1669 she decided to become a nun to escape marriage and continue to study as she wished.

Over the next twenty-five years, Sor Juana became famous for her poetry and prose on topics like love, religion, feminism, and women’s rights. Her work drew criticism from religious authorities because nuns were not supposed to concern themselves with worldly matters. Under pressure, she gave up writing in 1694. She sold her books for charity and retired to a life of caring for the sick in her convent.

About the Document

In this poem, Juana highlights the double standard that women lived under in New Spain. She lays the blame squarely at the feet of men. It is a fascinating peek into the social pressures that Juana and her peers faced in Mexico City high society, as well as a scathing criticism of Spanish colonial patriarchy.

Vocabulary

  • convent: The home of a community of nuns.
  • Nahuatl: The language of the Aztec people.
  • New Spain: The Spanish colony in North America, which encompassed current-day Mexico and the Southwestern United States.
  • nun: Woman who dedicates her life to serving the Catholic Church.
  • patriarchy: A system of society or government in which men hold power and women are excluded.
  • viceroy: The king or queen’s representative in the Spanish colonies.

Document Vocabulary

  • censure: Express extreme disapproval.
  • esteem: Respect.
  • guile: Sly intelligence.
  • incite: Encourage.
  • Lucretia: A Roman noblewoman who committed suicide after she was raped to preserve her family’s honor.
  • patent: Obvious.
  • solicit: Ask for something.
  • Thais: A sex worker who accompanied Alexander the Great on many of his campaigns.