The Imperfect Sex. Why Is Sor Juana Not a Saint?

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El sexo imperfecto. ¿Por qué sor Juana no puede ser santa?

Monthly Review

The Imperfect Sex.

Why Is Sor Juana Not a Saint?

Dr. Jorge Majfud

Lincoln University

Every hegemonic power in every historical period establishes the limits of what is normal and, consequently, of what is natural.  Thus, the power that ordered patriarchal society reserved for itself (reserves for itself) the unquestionable right to define what was a man and what was a woman.  Every time some exalted person takes recourse to the mediocre argument that “things have been like this since the beginning of the world,” he situates the origin of the world in a recent period of the history of humanity.

Like any system, patriarchy fulfilled an organizing function.  Probably, at some moment, it was an order convenient to the majority of society, including women.  I don’t believe that oppression arises from patriarchy, but instead when the latter attempts to perpetuate itself by imposing itself on processes that range from the survival to the liberation of human kind.  If patriarchy was once a logical system of values for an agricultural system of production and survival, today it no longer means anything more than an oppressive, and for some time now, hypocritical tradition.

In 1583, the revered Fray Luis de León wrote La perfecta casada (The Perfect Wife) as a book of useful advice for marriage.  There, as with any other text of the tradition, it is understood that an exceptionally virtuous woman is a manly woman.  “What here we call woman of principle; and we might say manly woman (…) means virtue of spirit and strength of heart, industry and wealth and power.”  Then: “in the man to be gifted with understanding and reason, does not make him worthy of praise, because having this is his own nature (…) If the truth be told, it is a bouquet of dishonesties for the chaste woman to think she could not be so, or that in being so she does something for which she should be thanked.”  Then: “God, when he decided to marry man by giving him woman, said: ‘Let us make for him a help mate’ (Gen. 2); from whence it is understood that the natural place of woman and the end for which God created her, is for her to be a helper to her husband.”  A hundred years before Sor Juana would be condemned for speaking too much and for defending her right to speak, the nature of woman was well defined: “it is right for [women] to pride themselves on being silent, both those for whom it is convenient to cover up their lack of knowledge, and those who might shamelessly reveal what they know, because in all of them it is not only an agreeable condition, but a proper virtue, to speak little and be silent.”  Then: “because, just as nature, as we have said and will say, made women to remain in the home as its keepers, so also it obliged them to keep their mouths closed. (…) Just as the good and honest woman was not made by nature for the study of the sciences nor for negotiation of hardships, but for a simple and domestic profession, it also limited their understanding, and therefore it rationed their words and reason.”  But the moralizer of the day was not lacking in tenderness: “do not think that God created them and gave them to man only for them to keep the home, but also to console him and give him joy.  So that in her the tired and angry husband might find rest, and the children love, and the family piety, and all of them generally an agreeable refuge.”

By the next century, Francisco Cascales believed that woman had to struggle against her nature, which was not only determined but evil or defective besides: “The needle and the distaff – wrote the military man and university professor, in 1653 – are the woman’s weapons, and so strong, that armed with them she will resist the most prideful enemy to tempt her.”  Which amounted to saying that the distaff was the weapon of an oppressive system.

Juan de Zabaleta, notable figure of the Spanish Golden Age, declared in 1653 that “in poetry there is no substance; nor in the understanding of a woman.”  And later: “woman is naturally gossipy,” the woman poet “adds more madness to her madness (…) The woman poet is the most imperfect and abhorrent animal formed by nature (…) If it were permitted of me, I would burn her alive.  He who celebrates a woman for being a poet, God should give her to him as a wife, so that he might know what he celebrates.”  In his following book, the lawyer wrote: “the word wife means comfort more than anything, pleasure the least.”  Nonetheless, man “by adoring a woman takes adoration away from the Creator.”  Zabaleta at times goes so far as to create metaphors with a certain aesthetic value: the woman in church “with her fan in hand enlivens with its air the fire that encircles her.” (1654)

In 1575,the physician Juan Huarte informed us that the testicles affirm the temperament more than the heart, while in the woman “the organ that is most gripped by the alterations of the uterus, according to all the physicians, is the brain, although there may be no grounds on which to base this correspondence.”  Hippocrates, Galeno, Sigmund Freud and the most fanatical supporters of the Boca Juniors soccer team would all agree.  The wise and ingenious man, according to the Spanish physician, has a son with contrary traits when the woman’s seed predominates, and no wise child can come from a woman.  For this reason, when the man predominates, even when he is brutish and stupid a clever son results.

In his book about Fernando (a.k.a. the Catholic Monarch Ferdinand), another renowned moralist, Baltasar Gracián, dedicates some final lines to Queen Isabel.  “What most aided Fernando – wrote the Jesuit – [was] doña Isabel his Catholic consort, that great princess who, even though a woman, exceeded the limits of a man.”  Although there were noteworthy women, “commonly in this sex the passions reign in such a way that they leave no room for counsel, for patience, for prudence, essential parts of government, and with  power their tyranny is augmented. (…) Ordinarily, manly women were very prudent.”  Later: “In Spain manly females have always endured a position for males, and in the house of Austria they have always been respected and employed.” (1641)

I believe that the idea of the manly woman as virtuous woman is consistent with the tolerance of lesbianism by the same patriarchal system of values that condemned masculine homosexuality to burn at the stake, whether in the Middle East, in Europe or among the imperial Incas.  Where there was a greater predominance for matriarchy, neither the virginity of the woman nor the homosexuality of men was watched over with such fervor.

A famous woman – beatified, sainted and given a doctorate by the Catholic Church – Saint Teresa, wrote in 1578: “Weakness is natural and it is very weak, especially in women.”  Recommending an extreme discipline with the nuns, the future saint argued: “I do not believe there is anything in the world that could damage a prelate more than to not be feared, and for his subjects to think they may deal with him as with an equal, especially for women, for once understanding that there is in the prelate such softness… governing them will be difficult.”  But this deficient nature impeded not only the proper social order but mystical achievement as well.  Just like Buddha, in her famous book Las moradas the same saint recognized the natural “stupidity of women” that made it difficult for them to reach the center of the divine mystery.

It is perfectly understandable that a woman at the service of the patriarchal order, like Saint Teresa, would have been beatified, while another religious woman who openly opposed this structure would never have been recognized as such.  I would sum up Saint Teresa’s slogan in just one word: obedience, above all social obedience.

Saint Teresa died an old woman and without the martyrdom proper to the saints.  Sor Juana, in contrast, was made to suffer psychological, moral and, finally, physical torture until she died at the age of fourty-four, serving her fellow man in the epidemic of 1695.  But none of that matters for canonizing her as a saint when “the worst of all women” committed the sin of questioning authority.  Why not propose, then, Saint Juana Inés de la Cruz, patron saint of oppressed women?

Those who reject Sor Juana’s religious merits adduce a political value in her figure, when not merely a literary one.  In another essay we already noted the political value of the life and death of Jesus, a value historically denied.  The political and the aesthetic in Santa Teresa – the “patron saint of writers” – fill her works and thoughts as much as the religious and the mystical do.  Nonetheless, a hegemonic political position is an invisible politics: it is omnipresent.  Only that politics which resists the hegemony, which contests the dominant discourse becomes visible.

When I kiss my wife on the mouth in a public square, I am exercising a hegemonic sexuality, which is the heterosexual one.  If two women or two men do the same thing they are not only exercising their homosexuality but also a challenge to the hegemonic order which rewards some and punishes others.  Each time a man goes out on the street dressed as a traditional woman, inevitably he is making a – visible – political statement.  I also make a political statement when I go out on the street dressed as a (traditional) man, but my declaration coincides with the hegemonic politics, is transparent, invisible, appears apolitical, neutral.  It is for this reason that the act of the marginalized becomes a visible politics.

We can understand in the same way the political and religious factor in two women as different as Saint Teresa and Sor Juana.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons for which one of them has been repeatedly honored by the religious tradition and the other reduced to the literary circle or to the Mexican two-hundred peso notes, symbol of the material world, abstraction of sin.

Translated by

Dr. Bruce Campbell

St. John’s University

Dr. Jorge Majfud was born in Tacuarembó, Uruguay in 1969. He majored in Architecture and in 1996 graduated from the Universidad de la República in Montevideo. He travelled extensively to gather material that would later become part of his novels and essays, and was a professor at the Universidad Hispanoamericana de Costa Rica and at Escuela Técnica del Uruguay, where he taught mathematics and art. He received his PhD degree at the University of Georgia. He currently teaches Latin American Literature at Lincoln University of Pennsylvania. His publications include: Hacia qué patrias del silencio / memorias de un desaparecido (novel, 1996); Crítica de la pasión pura (essays, 1998); La reina de América (novel, 2001); La narración de lo invisible / Significados ideológicos de América Latina (essays, 2006); Perdona nuestros pecados (short stories, 2007) and La ciudad de la Luna (novel, 2008). His stories and essays have been translated into Portuguese, French, English, German, Italian and Greek.

Dr. Bruce Campbell is an Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies at St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN, where he is chair of the Latino/Latin American Studies program. He is the author of Mexican Murals in Times of Crisis (University of Arizona, 2003) and ¡Viva la historieta! Mexican Comics, NAFTA, and the Politics of Globalization (University Press of Mississippi, 2009).

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