Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a 17th-century colonial Mexican nun and accomplished poet, essayist and outspoken feminist. As a teenager, she first gained fame as a self-taught prodigy when she faced a 40-person panel of Mexico City's foremost scholars and aced an oral exam in mathematics, philosophy, theology and literature.
Born Juana Ramirez de Asbaje, circa 1651, de la Cruz was the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish captain and a creole woman raised from a young age at the hacienda of her maternal grandfather. It was there that she learned to read at age 3 and began devouring the books in her grandfather's library, writing her first poems in Spanish, Latin and the Aztec language Nahuatl when she was just 8 [source: Engel].
The girl was sent to live with an aunt in Mexico City, where she begged to be disguised as a boy and sent to school, but instead had to settle for tutoring from a scholarly priest. She soon won the favor of the viceroy of New Spain and his wife, who organized a public test of her expansive knowledge in the royal court. The 17-year-old girl matched the greatest minds in the court and the feat was publicized throughout Mexico.
Uninterested in marriage, de la Cruz joined a convent so she could dedicate her life to studying and writing. Her poems and plays, including witty secular comedies, are considered classics of baroque Spanish literature. When she was reprimanded by the church for an essay criticizing a prominent bishop's sermon, she wrote her infamous "Respuesta" (or "Reply"), quite possibly the first feminist manifesto.
Defending the rights of women to study and express themselves freely, she quipped, "One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper" [source: Merrim].