Both Anne Broadstreet and Sor Juan Ines lived and published their works in a highly dominated patriarchal society, which believed that women were incapable of expressing themselves through powerful writing. Male writers depicted even the innermost feelings and emotions of women, and women were forced to abide by this male-constructed hegemony. As a result, the suppressed feminist feelings find their expression in abundance in the writings of both these female writers. The cultural backgrounds of both these female writers were such that women were not encouraged to pursue higher studies or acquire knowledge. It is from these constraints that both of them are able to raise their distinct voices in protest.
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Cultural and gender discrimination played crucial roles in the lives as well as in the writings of both Bradstreet and Sor Juana. The cultural partiality between men and women was very much prevalent in Bradstreet’s time, and she was very much unhappy about it. In most of the houses, women were confined to the four walls of their kitchen. The woman was often considered to be intellectually inferior to the male, incapable of thinking or reasoning in the right way. This forced many readers of her time to think that she was stealing materials from male writers. Bradstreet makes this criticism clear in her thought-provoking prologue:
“A poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong,
For such despite they cast on female wits.
If what I do prove well, it won’t advance;
They’ll say it’s stolen, or else it was by chance.” (The Prologue).
In the same way, Sor Juana negated any attempt made by stereotyped male writers.
To picture women the way they have perceived females, which very often proved to be far from reality.
The religious atmosphere of both the writers was not favorable for any female writers to grow and express themselves. Another recurrent theme one comes across in the works of Bradstreet and Sor Juana is their religious experiences. The Puritans strongly believed that one has to renounce the world and all its pleasures to attain eternal salvation. This belief overwhelmed Bradstreet as she considered her personal sicknesses and tribulations as God’s designs to accomplish His will in her life. Thus we find an acceptance of puritan beliefs in the writings of Bradstreet. On the other hand, Sor Juana was bold enough to write, even after joining the convent, her famous reply ‘Respuesta a Sor Filotea,’ defending the right of women to study and write. This invited her open criticism from the church authorities, and she was asked to abandon her studies and renounce her books. But Sor Juana didn’t succumb herself to the demands of her superiors, and she continued to publish and wrote a group of eight carols on the life of St Catharine of Alexandria, some of which have strong feminist undercurrents because she strongly believed that women have to read, acquire knowledge and learn to express herself in her own unique way: “Knowledge in the seventeenth century bore a masculine sign. Sor Juana understood very early (she says so in the “Respuesta”) that to enter into the world of knowledge, she would have to dress up as a man, reject some part of herself, turning it neuter or abstract. Yet, as this poem shows, she never gave up fighting in her own work for the rights of women to have access to knowledge, as women, not dressed up as men.” (Difference and Indifference: The Poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz).
This incessant thirst for knowledge is also seen in the life of Bradstreet. She lived in a time when it was very difficult for a woman to have formal education. Yet she was fortunate because her father wanted his daughter to learn new things. He provided her with eight tutors to impart education to her. She was a very inquisitive woman who would satisfy her urge for knowledge by reading the works of the famous writers of the time and beyond. It is said that Sor Juana learned to read very early when she was only three years old. Sor Juana Ines De la Cruz was profoundly influenced by her grandfather. He taught her to read and write Spanish and Latin. She was introduced to the library of her grandfather and thus developed a fondness for books. She actually wanted to join Mexico University, which only men were allowed to attend. Thus it is no wonder that one of the major themes of Sor Juana’s work is knowledge and, in particular, the right of women to have access to learning. The church strongly believed that scientific knowledge posed a threat to its religious power, and being a nun, it was very difficult for Sor Juan to express herself openly on the importance of knowledge.
Even though these two female writers possessed a lot of similarities, both in their lives and works, their thematic concerns were not always the same. One of the major differences in their thematic approaches was the fact that Sor Juana concentrated more on the individual freedom of women and her right to education and access to knowledge, whereas Bradstreet was a committed housewife, and many of her poems deal with family life, her longing for her husband and her deep love towards him. Sor Juana had to undergo a lot of tribulations alone, whereas Bradstreet was supported and encouraged by her husband. Her writings were primarily for herself, her family, and her friends, who were all very well educated. She was a feminist writer with an insinuation of historical and cultural outlook. Her womanhood took a back seat when she began writing about her personal life, a life which would have been hidden had she not told people about it in her writings. We get to know from her poetry that she was head over heels in love with her husband and missed him when he had to go on tours to England and other places.
The puritans undermined husband-wife relationships to love of God as the former could take one’s soul away from God. The following lines from the poem ” To My Dear and Loving Husband” shows that she doesn’t want to hide her love for her husband to satisfy the religious fervor of the time:
“If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can.”
At another instance, when her husband is away, her soul cries: “Flesh of thy flesh, bone of thy bone,/I here, thou there, yet but both one”( A Letter to Her Husband, Absent upon Public Employment). Thus it is evident that Anne Bradstreet’s poems were mostly based on her own life experiences and her love for her husband and family.
Both Bradstreet and Sor Juana were women writers who raised their voices against the social discrimination prevalent at their individual times. While Anne Bradstreet was a little-known writer of her time, Sor Juana had gained enough recognition during her lifetime. Bradstreet wrote only to satisfy her personal urge to comment on the social status of women; Sor Juana’s writings were meant for the intellectual gentry of the time. Anne’s readers were only her near and dear ones in her lifetime, while Juana’s readers were the elite public. Most of Bradstreet’s poetry was generally ignored until rediscovered by the feminist of the 20th Century. Sor Juana’s name was brought forth on the political front of the city, which was not so with Annie. Annie’s work never raised an uproar of any kind, neither positive nor negative. Because of the ups and downs in the life of Sor Juana, she was scared to write on religious and spiritual beliefs, while Annie was never afraid to voice her opinions on any issue. While Annie’s writings talk of love, her husband, and her family while encrusting her feminist attitude, Sor Juana has al maintained her strong opinion about feminism.
To conclude, one can state without any doubt that the greatness of these writers lies in the fact that both of them wrote and made their accomplishments in a historical context where women poets struggled hard for existence. Women who wrote in their time had to break all the shackles that surrounded them, as the male-dominated society showed disapproval towards female writings. Both of them wrote in an atmosphere where the search for knowledge by women was discouraged and where women were relegated to traditional roles. One can find in their works echoes of suppression, oppression, and helplessness and the best example is the following lines taken from Bradstreet’s poem “Contemplations”:-
“Silent alone where none or saw or heard,
In pathless paths, I lead my wandering feet.
My humble Eyes to lofty Skies I rear’d
To sing some Song, my mazed Muse thought meet” (Contemplations).
Even though at times they had to travel through ‘pathless paths and remain ‘silent,’ they did sing ‘some Song,’ which still is repeated by many and which attributed them the role of early feminists.
- Difference and Indifference: The Poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.
- Lecture for Part I SP2: Introduction to Hispanic Texts. Geoffrey Kantaris, 1992
- Sexual difference. Web.