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  • Writer's pictureRosemary Gemmell

International Women’s Day: St Teresa of Avila

Throughout history, women have been subjugated and silenced solely because of their gender in a patriarchal society. Yet in almost every era, certain strong women made their presence noticeable while alive, and many have left a legacy of their determination and strength in print.

To mark International Women’s Day, I’m posting part of my article that was published several years ago in an anthology, She’s the One, which celebrated all kinds of women, past and present. One of my heroines is St Teresa of Avila, the 16th century nun, mystic and writer and she is one of the women I’ll be including in a non-fiction book about historical women in a patriarchal society when I get around to finishing it!


Despite having little formal education beyond reading and writing, Teresa appears to have been intelligent and determined, producing two books about her contemplative life. She eventually came to the attention of that ultimate instrument of masculine superiority at the time, the Inquisition, who accused her of having challenged both the church and authority. Teresa successfully argued her case on the grounds that she was writing of her own personal experience, and not of theology.


As a strong, courageous woman in a man’s world, Teresa of Avila ostensibly accepted a subservient role, male domination and male scholarship. It is inferred in her writings, however, that she was in fact skilled at manipulating men, and playing them at their own game. In her autobiography, Life, written in 1565, Teresa writes: “Here I shall have to make use of a comparison though, being a woman and writing only what I have been commanded to write, I should like to avoid it.”


Treated badly at her end, Teresa was nevertheless canonised in 1622, and her two famous works, Life and The Way of Perfection are still read by theologians and historians today. A legacy any female writer would be pleased to leave the world.

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