The “Other María” Challenges Readers

Guest post written by Margaret R Greer, author of María de Zayas and her Tales of Desire, Death and Disillusion.

When I first discovered the stories of María de Zayas y Sotomayor, the only women writers on my reading list were nuns. In the 1980’s, only Saint Teresa and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz made the lists for Spanish lit. They dedicated their lives and writing to praising God—the Christian god—and Maria–the Virgin Mary, as mother of Jesus Christ. Those lists didn’t even direct a nod toward “my” María, a Spanish best-selling author of two volumes of stories, first published in 1637 and 1647. María de Zayas opened her first book by challenging potential readers.

“Who doubts, my reader, that you will be amazed that a woman has the audacity not only to write a book, but to send it for printing.” That made sense when literate nuns’ confessors ordered them to write their spiritual autobiographies. Those writings were to prove that the nuns were inspired by God, not the devil. And their writing was to stay in manuscript.

Zayas expands the challenge

Zayas repeats and expands the challenge: “Who doubts, I say again, but there will be many who attribute to madness this virtuous daring to bring my scribblings into the light, being a woman, which in the opinion of some fools, is the same as an incapable thing.” Men and women are made of the same matter she says, and souls have no gender. One of her narrators says men keep women from studying sciences and exercising arms for fear they will displace them. I didn’t think I was incapable, or I wouldn’t have been studying for my PhD. But I focused on the comedia – popular drama, by male authors. And wrote my dissertation on the court plays of Pedro Calderón de la Barca. The plays of course involved women—human or divine– as objects of love, or desire, or of fear.

Bringing women into the picture

By the late 1980’s, I began bringing women into the picture, at least on the margins. First with a talk at the 1987 MLA Convention on Tirso de Molina’s three plays about sor Juana de la Cruz, a Franciscan nun from Toledo, and the treatment of the manuscripts of those plays by male censors and theater company owners. And a talk about María de Zayas as author, about “houses of God (that is, convents), Man, and Mother.” As a youngish mother myself in that decade, I analyzed the relative absence of mothers in early modern Spanish plays.

Getting tenure

The more urgent issue for me in the 1990’s was the scarcity of women among the ranks of tenured faculty. Having us as language teachers was fine, but not taking tenured positions—those were for men, who needed them to support their families. So I was told by a senior professor, a good friend. I did have to go through the tenure process twice at Princeton, but less for gender issues than because of inter-language competition within Romance Languages

Women as subjects; body counts

Even having secured tenure in 1992, however, I still avoided identification as exclusively centered on women. I kept focusing on mothers, and on the comedia. And began incorporating what I learned from psychoanalytic theory, partly to figure out where that prejudice against women and fear of them – of us – resided. I began with work on Zayas’s figures of the “phallic woman” and the “female eunuch,” on how and why Zayas apportioned both “good” and “bad” women in her plots. And on the mounting body count, as her heroines met death at men’s hand in her 1647 volume. On the paradox of her use of sexual desire as the motor driving her plots, while warning of its danger.

María de Zayas as center

In the 2000’s, I placed Zayas center stage in my work, in articles and a monograph published by the Pennsylvania State University Press in 2001. Then with lengthy debates with each other, Elizabeth Rhodes and I translated into English and annotated an anthology of Zayas stories from her two volumes. It was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2009. We welcomed readers to her labyrinthian prose, acknowledging the difficulty of her long, complex sentences, and the help we had received from many friends and colleagues. Boydell and Brewer (Tamesis) then commissioned me to write another book about Zayas and her tales, which was published in 2022 as María de Zayas and her Tales of Desire, Death and Disillusion. I retired from teaching in 2014, but not from enjoyment of Zayas’s tales, nor from the pleasure of seeing younger scholars engage with her baroque language and plots.

Margaret R. Greer taught at Princeton and Duke and publishes on Early Modern Spanish theater and women writers Sor Juana and María de Zayas.

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