gender and sexuality
love and marriage
imagined worlds
places and spaces
danger: love
writing and fame
la querelle femmes

Religion and Theology
Elizabeth Giancola

Christine de Pizan
In The Book of the City of Ladies (1403-04) Christine de Pizan lays the framework for a female-centered theology, redefining ideas about virtue. Two centuries later, in the seventeenth century, three other women writers illuminate new ways for women to communicate with God and to explore spirituality through questioning male-based theologies and creating alternatives that are more inclusive of women-or at least of women's voices. Within the European world of Margaret Lucas Cavendish and Christine de Pizan, imagined worlds provide the new space for the women-centered religion. However, within the New World of colonial Mexico and Massachusetts, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Anne Bradstreet elaborate theologies closely associated with nature in order to insert women into the spiritual realm without demanding an exclusive space for women. Sor Juana extends her ideas about women in religion into the imagined space of the dream world in First Dream (1692). Anne Bradstreet, on the other hand, does not venture into imagined spaces. She finds God in nature and speaking of her understanding of God, not to create a more women-centered religion, but simply to explain her spirituality through her life experiences.

In The Book of the City of Ladies, female spirits visit the protagonist Christine. The spirits ar e the daughters of God who help her to understand religion and virtue according to feminist, or rather, non-misogynistic viewpoints. They also help her to build a city in which to establish this new theology. At the start of the text, Christine laments her female form because she feels that it makes her less fit to serve God (Pizan 5). Thus, her initial understanding of virtue is that it cannot include women because they are inferior to men. However, through her interactions with the three spirits she reaches new understandings about female virtue. Furthermore, the interaction asserts that women can communicate with and receive God (Lerner 18).

The three women spirits-Reason, Rectitude, and Justice-represent Pizan's theology and ideas about virtue. Reason helps people to do good work; she uses strong architecture to build the city (Pizan 12). Rectitude stands for right thinking and right doing (Warner xv); she encourages people to do what is right, helps the poor and innocent, and defends and protects the servants of God. Finally, Justice ensures that each person receives the good or evil that he or she deserves (Pizan 13).

The three spirits encourage Christine by creating new interpretations of the Bible and explaining misogynistic discourse through examination of the faults and motives of the men who wrote the criticisms of women. Moreover, they encourage Christine by reminding her of strong women that came before her, like those of the Amazon kingdom run by and for women (Pizan 11). The spirits remind Christine that nowhere in nature do men attack the women of their species; it is not natural. Therefore, they reason that men only blame women for their own faults (Pizan 17). In order to challenge the criticism that it is women's nature to be gluttonous and lecherous, they give an example of the many men that spend all their money drinking and leave their wives and families at home without food (Pizan 25). The spirits recall the guilt placed on women for the misdeed of Eve that spurned the fall of humankind. They remind Christine that the Virgin Mary brought humankind much greater good than any ill brought by Eve (Pizan 24).

According to the female-centered theology that Pizan's work proposes, men are not superior because male and female souls are equal. When the Bible says that man is created in God's image, it means humankind in general (Pizan 23). Furthermore, the spirits argue against the idea that women's bodies are made from vile substances by saying that women came from men who in turn came from God. Thus, reason proves that women cannot be vile (Pizan 24).

Next, the three divine messengers refute the criticism of women that blames women for being servile and child-like. They tell Christine that this demonstrates women's tenderness and kindness, not her weakness. They remind her that Jesus brought a child before his Apostles as an example to them (Pizan 27).

In addition, Pizan includes mythological figures in her writings and sees herself as a predecessor of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and industry (Warner xv). The female goddesses with whom Christine speaks also show that the virtues of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice are embodied by female spirits and, therefore, by women too.

At the end of her text, Pizan praises marriage, remembering Ezra's advice that too much free will can lead a person to sin. She says that it is best to have an honest, good husband, but that a woman should stay with her husband even when he is cruel in order to help reform him. Virtuous women are humble, patient, modest, and respectful (Pizan 255). Thus, despite strong feminist ideals, Pizan does not attempt to overthrow the institution of marriage or the often oppressive ideals that dictate the traits of a good woman.

The City of Ladies is meant to protect women from suffering at the hands of men who attack women in the name of God. In the text, Pizan succeeds in defending women's virtue against historical prejudices. However, it is a city only for the virtuous women who are praiseworthy or famous (Pizan 11). This exclusivity is inherently problematic, as it would exclude historic heroines like Mary Magdalene, who was a prostitute.

Margaret Lucas Cavendish
The religion that Cavendish creates in The Convent of Pleasure (1668) is less concerned with defending women against men's criticisms. Instead, Cavendish encourages women to worship the Goddess Nature, emphasizing female creation.

In the convent, gender rules dissolve and women perform all the work. For example, the protagonist, Lady Happy, is the founder and chief Confessor of the re-imagined convent, where she works alongside female physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries (Cavendish 103). The freedom to worship as they please is intimately linked with women's ability to support a society with their own skills and labors without the help of men.

The women in the convent worship by paying close attention to the season and the fruits of the earth-Nature gives them pleasure (Cavendish 101). The goal of the new religion is to create pleasure in life. Lady Happy questions the virtue of a God who derives pleasure from men and women's sacrifice of pleasurable things. Instead, she suggests that religious zeal develops when worshippers are not forced to make bodily sacrifices. She reasons that, even if God does prefer praise, people can better praise God when the body and soul feel comfortable and at ease (Cavendish 100). Natural and logical ideals are the basis of Lady Happy's theology. For the women of the convent this means enjoying pleasures, eating well, and wearing fine clothes (Cavendish 99).

As part of their entertainments, the women perform plays about evil husbands who beat their wives and do not provide for their families. The plays also recall the grief of failed childbirth (Cavendish 116). In contrast to the realities of the cruel world, the convent is a convenient way to avoid misfortune and heartbreak. Moving beyond the defense of women against men's attacks as in Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies, Cavendish unleashes criticisms against men's folly and immorality.

Cavendish furthers her ideas about God and nature in The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666), where her protagonist explores a new world of imaginary creatures. The inhabitants all worship one god, stating that all the different temples and churches honor the same creator. Despite this progressive view, these creatures exclude women from public places of worship. They relegate women to pray in the closets of their homes for fear that men would be distracted by the presence of women in church (Cavendish 164). Cavendish seeks to ameliorate the injustice by suggesting that it is more pleasant to create separate spaces in imagined worlds because it protects women from the troubles and inconveniences often found in the physical world. All of Cavendish's works propose contradictory situations for women. In The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World, Cavendish tries to assure women that they are lucky to worship even in the confining space of their closets at home because it gives them an opportunity to expand their spirituality into the imaginary realm. She suggests that in this space woman can exercise more control than men wield in the physical world. However, in The Convent of Pleasure, she proposes that women create their own segregated convent where they can worship according to female based values and ideas about God and spirituality. Although it is fictitious, Cavendish proposes this convent within the context of a realistic world. A real space for women to worship God in the physical world suddenly seems valuable to her, except that at the close of the play the protagonist falls in love and marries, potentially sacrificing her freedom to worship. She chooses a life with a man over her life of pleasure in the convent.

Sor Juana Inès de la Cruz
Sor Juana's writings, unlike Cavendish's represent the female struggle to worship God and pursue learning and one's spirituality within a very real, very heated politically charged religious environment. Sor Juana expresses her spirituality in imaginary spaces and moves beyond playful fiction writing to fight the church leaders for her right to study. She favors educating women so that they may come closer to understanding God. In her "Reply to Sor Philothea" (1691)-really the pseudonym of the Bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz-Sor Juana reveals many of her ideas about virtue and religion.

She explains that she studies to try to become less ignorant so that she can better understand the word of God. As a nun, she can spend her time pursuing her passion for knowledge by reading books and studying and investigating nature through her senses (Trueblood 212). Sor Juana explains that all things are inherently interconnected because they come from God. Therefore, one must understand the human arts, sciences, architecture, and music in order to understand the logic and lessons of the Bible and attain a clear understanding of God (Trueblood 213).

Another difference between Cavendish and Sor Juana is their differing perspectives on the convent. While Cavendish proposes the convent as an ideal place, Sor Juana laments the many distractions and inconveniences of communal living. She maintains that only her love for her fellow nuns allows her to take pleasure in the distraction and inconvenience (Trueblood 217). In Cavendish and Sor Juana's varying perspectives on the convent, we see the differences between an idyllic imaginary space and the actual, physical reality of a nunnery. Furthermore, Cavendish's aspirations are more superficial than Sor Juana's. Sor Juana quests for ultimate knowledge and an understanding of God and the world while Cavendish emphasizes sensorial pleasure and freedom from the patriarchy as an end unto itself.

In "Reply to Sor Philothea," Sor Juana describes God as she asks, "could any invite more love than His heavenly modesty, or the gentleness and mildness that spread loving-kindness with His every movement, or His deep humbleness and meekness, His words of eternal life and eternal wisdom?" (Trueblood 219-20) Sor Juana's God is not only the source of all wisdom, but also a kind and compassionate God who supports-not punishes-his followers.

Inquiry into God's eternal wisdom is the foundation of Sor Juana's religion. Pursuing her curiosity of the world through reading books and observing her own immediate world, Sor Juana tries to understand the uniqueness of all things and their interrelatedness. When authorities forbid Sor Juana to study books, she says that her mind naturally busies itself with the world around her. She contemplates a universal human connection as she speaks with another person and then ponders physics as she follows the path of a ball thrown between two children. Finally, she marvels at the objects in the kitchen as she examines God's handiwork in each egg and the chemistry that holds together syrups and oils (Trueblood 227).

The divinity and wonder that Sor Juana finds in the common world represent an expression of female spirituality within the confines of the male dominated theologies. Sor Juana says that the divine can be found everywhere. Hence, women may find God by communing with and learning about the objects that surround them in everyday life. However, Sor Juana does create an imaginary space in her poem, First Dream (1692), a space where female goddesses rule the earth as it falls asleep and moves into the world of dreams and mythology. Furthermore, these spaces where women may free their spirits and minds from the restrictions of the patriarchal religious order do not diminish Sor Juana's fight against the church hierarchy for her right to worship and study. She does not simply dismiss the obstacles of the real world by submitting to their rules and finding private solace in imagined spaces. Instead, she continues to fight for her right to study and know God like any man.

Despite Sor Juana's claim that God and religion may be known by studying even the most minute aspects of the physical world and subjects seemingly unrelated to theology, she maintains later that only certain people should be encouraged to study religion. In "Reply to Sor Philothea," Sor Juana argues against gender discrimination and instead, proposes discrimination against fools. She proposes that foolish men or women should not study, for their knowledge will only give them a larger vocabulary from which to draw their foolish ideas (Trueblood 230). She also claims that only a specific kind of woman should be given permission to study God; that is only women "whom God has endowed with particular virtue and discernment and who have become highly accomplished and erudite, and possess the talents and other qualities needed for such holy pursuits" (Trueblood 229). Sor Juana supports this idea with the words from Romans 12:3: "For I say, by the grace that is given me, to all that are among you, not to be more wise than it behoveth to be wise, but to be wise unto sobriety and according as God hath divided to everyone the measure of faith" (Trueblood 231). Thus, if men try to study beyond their natural inclinations, it will only lead them to confusion. Sor Juana notes that men-not women-were given this advice, proving that men are not always superior to women. If some women should not study too much because it is against their nature, the same holds true for men (Trueblood 231). Later in "Reply to Sor Philothea," Sor Juana quotes Quintilian: "Let everyone learn, and not so much through the precepts of others as by consulting his own nature" (Trueblood 236).

Similar to Cavendish's The Convent of Pleasure (1668), Sor Juana emphasizes activities that agree with one's nature. Gaining knowledge and understanding of God is not determined by gender but by one's intrinsic proclivity to seek and pursue God's mysteries in theology and the physical world.

However, there is an undeniable exclusivity to this theology, similar to that of Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies, where Christine creates a city in which only virtuous and learned women may dwell. In her creation of a more female-inclusive theology, Sor Juana does not aim to include all women or all men in the quest to understand God. By shifting the exclusionary factor away from gender and toward the natural inclination of each soul, Sor Juana tries to make her own space to study and to pursue her quest for knowledge about the world and God. According to Sor Juana, the soul is innately genderless. In Romance #48, she writes, "Of one thing I'm sure: that my body / disinclined to this man or that, / serves only to house the soul-- / you might call it neuter or abstract" (Trueblood 31). Not only does Sor Juana refuse to give her body unto any man, but she denies a gender categorization of her body altogether. She refers to the body as a home that does not identify according to gender distinctions. In First Dream, Sor Juana describes the narrator as loosening herself "from that bodily chain" (Trueblood 178), so that she may pursue her quest for knowledge. Again, we find an emphasis on the quest of the soul that is not defined or confined by gender.

Nonetheless, Sor Juana cannot deny her gender in the physical world. In her writings, she develops a theology that includes female mythological characters and vindicates herself and the female sex in general through the examples of these virtuous and learned women that came before her. Such figures include St. Paula, patron saint of Sor Juana's convent who established the first Hieronymite nunneries in 414 AD (Trueblood 213), and many other women including Queens, prophets, mothers, and saints (Trueblood 229). In First Dream, she creates a world where women rule the sky, earth, and underworld (Trueblood 49). Throughout the poem, Sor Juana explores a diversity of landscapes from nature and minute atoms to the vastness of the cosmos (Trueblood 179). Although First Dream represents an imagined world, it depicts Sor Juana's theology as the quest for ultimate knowledge through studying the physical world. Her writings also justify and validate women and their right to pursue spiritual questions according to their natural inclinations.

Anne Bradstreet
While Sor Juana bases her theology on understanding science and how nature works, Anne Bradstreet uses the events in her life and the natural world to understand her own spirituality and God. Sor Juana and Bradstreet have two distinct manners of relating to nature, but both find a spiritual connection there.

As she questions God's existence, Bradstreet finds the answer to her query not only in the pages of the Bible, but also in the seasons and the earth passing from day into night. Bradstreet reasons that these miracles of Nature can only come from God (Arenal 168). Even when she faces hardship, Bradstreet's faith in God persists. For example, in "Upon the Burning of Our House, July 10th, 1666," she consoles herself in the belief that "Hope and Treasure lyes Above" (Arenal 192). Bradstreet views her loss as a blessing from God to remind her of the virtue of non-attachment to her material world.

At the center of Bradstreet's life and theology is her family. In In reference to her Children, 23 June, 1656, she focuses on the joy of raising children and compares herself and her children to birds. On page 400, Bradstreet says, "I Had eight birds hatcht in one neft, / Four Cock there were, and Hens the reft. / I nurfd them up with pain and care, / Nor coft, nor labour did I fpare." Bradstreet happily accepts her role as a woman and takes pride in the hard work and sacrifice she puts forth to raise her kids. Unlike Cavendish's Convent of Pleasure where performances stage the pains of childbirth, Bradstreet treasures the "inconveniences" of children. Furthermore, she proclaims to her children, "I happy am, if well with you" (Bradstreet 403). Thus, her relationship with her children defines her identity and her sense of well-being.

In her spiritual autobiography, "To my Dear Children" (1678), Anne Bradstreet presents her background and her life experiences to explain spiritual struggles and revelations. Bradstreet finds her theology in the context of marriage, family life, childbirth, love, and death. Her poetry celebrates her sexuality, her husband, and her children. She accepts the confines of marriage and her domestic role as a mother with pride and does not feel inhibited by them.

In Contemplations,, Bradstreet praises God for his "goodnefs, wifdome, glory, light" (Bradstreet 370), and then continues with praise of an oak tree and the sun, bringing all three together in their unique and awesome glories. In describing the sun, she states, "No wonder, fome made thee a Deity: / Had I not better known, (alas) the fame had I" (Bradstreet 371). This exemplifies Bradstreet's profound connection with nature and the cycles and symbols of the natural world as a reflection of God and his greatness. This sentiment is also found in Contemplations, where "The Earth reflects her glances in thy face. / Birds, infects, Animals with Vegative" (Bradstreet 371). Here Bradstreet speaks to God as she sees Him reflected in nature.

Like Sor Juana and Pizan, Bradstreet also calls upon virtuous female predecessors. Disproving the argument that women have no worth or reason, she recalls the brilliance of Queen Elizabeth, the "Pheonix Queen," who "wiped off the aspersion of her sex" (Bradstreet 359). Despite this hint of feminist discourse, Bradstreet seems to support the role of the domestic woman who loves her family and serves her husband and in doing so, serves God.

All four women writers find some form of female-centered connection with God in the beauty and grace of nature. Many connect God with nature in order to claim an aspect of spirituality on earth that the church rules and restrictions cannot dominate. Women and men are free to observe and enjoy the beauty of nature as an expression of God's gifts regardless of the male-centered ideologies imposed on society by the patriarchal church hierarchy. The church's restrictions are also avoided through the idea of the genderless soul and its right to commune with God.

Each writer describes a unique woman-centered theology, even if this is loosely interpreted in the case of Bradstreet's praise of nature, domesticity, and child rearing. Each woman branches out beyond the confines of her society that would not allow her to worship as an equal spirit alongside the bodies of men. The restrictions squeezed creative alternatives, biting criticisms and witty humor that show the folly of male centered theologies. Each female-centered theology connected women worshippers with nature and sought to demonstrate the equal worth of women before a compassionate and awesome God.


- Arenal, Electa. "This life within me won't keep still." In Reinventing the Americas: Comparative Studies of the Literature of the United States and Spanish America. By Bell and Gale Chevigny and Gari Laguardia. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
- Bowerbank, Sylvia and Sara Mendelson. Introduction to "The Convent of Pleasure." In Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader. Ed. Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson. Toronto: Broadview Press Ltd, 2000.
- Cavendish, Margaret Lucas. "The Convent of Pleasure." In Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader. Ed. Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson. Toronto: Broadview Press Ltd, 2000.
- Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sor. A Sor Juana Anthology. Ed. and trans. Alan S. Trueblood. Boston: Harvard, 2001.
- Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of a Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
- Pizan, Christine de. The Book of the City of Ladies. Trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards. New York: Persea Books, 1982.
- Warner, Marina. Foreword. The Book of the City of Ladies. By Margaret Lucas Cavendish. Trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards. New York: Persea Books, 1982.

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