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Sor Juana and the Double Standard

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

“Never,” my grandmother used to tell me when I was fifteen, “trust a man with a nose on his face.” Yet she, my other grandmother, and my mother as well, were all happily married to men with noses. At what point, I wondered, was it o.k. to lay down one’s defenses and trust a guy with a nose? In the culture in which I was raised, all young women were held to be in constant danger from all men, from boys with incipient mustaches to tottering grandfathers. We were warned again and again to be on the lookout for seducers, because men had only one thing in mind.

This silent warfare between the sexes outraged my sense of justice. As I understood it, my task if I wanted a happy, fulfilling life, was simultaneously to attract boys and to repel their advances. Just how was I supposed to perform this balancing act, and why was it my job to keep those ravening wolves at bay? With their supposedly superior rational powers, why couldn’t men police themselves? And why was a girl’s “badness” so much worse than a boy’s? Although neither my family nor the Church ever told me that men’s offenses against chastity were more excusable than women’s, I saw all around me that that was very much the case.

Somehow the injustice of the double standard never came up for discussion. Second wave feminism had yet to crest, and I wasn’t sufficiently articulate to voice my concerns. But I used to grind my teeth in irritation, and wish that somebody would address this vexing issue.

And then I found that someone had—long before Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex, and even before the first glimmers of the suffragist movement.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th century Mexican nun,  was the brilliant illegitimate daughter of a Spanish officer and a Mexican woman from a wealthy family. Having taught herself Latin, Greek, and theology, she asked her mother’s permission to disguise herself as a man and go to university, but you can imagine the answer she got. So at nineteen, having turned down several proposals of marriage, and less out of religious devotion than from a desire to be left to study in peace, she entered the convent, where she amassed an enormous collection of books and ran a salon that was attended by countesses, marchionesses, and even the vicereine of New Spain.

Sitting in her quiet cell, Sor Juana  wrote poems, plays, essays on philosophy, religion, and the education of women, and even a treatise on musical notation. And she wrote a diatribe against the double standard that, five centuries later, could well serve as the anthem of the MeToo movement.

In seventeen ringing quatrains, “Hombres necios” (“Stupid men”) gives voice to female rage with a verve and eloquence unequaled in later feminist writings. Her lines seethe with irritation and contempt—the word “stupid” appears three times in the poem. In her mind men are not evil, just stupid and lacking in the most elementary logic.

Stupid men, she begins, not mincing words, who accuse women unjustly, don’t you see that you are responsible for the very things for which you blame them? How can women be virtuous if you are forever inciting them to sin? You combat their resistance and then self-righteously berate them for being easy. You yourselves smear the glass and then complain that it’s dirty. You are like children who build bogeymen and then are afraid of them. A woman just cannot win: if she refuses your advances you complain, but if she gives in you mock her. During courtship you want a whore, but after marriage a saint. And speaking of whores, who do you think is worse, she who sins for pay, or he who pays to sin?

Needless to say, Sor Juana was variously harassed for this and her other works by the local Church hierarchy, and eventually she gave up writing to devote herself to “good works.” She died in her forties, during a plague, while nursing her fellow nuns. I hope that wherever she is she can look upon our century and see that, though men with noses can still be a problem, women’s voices are beginning to be heard.



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