Saturday, February 12, 2005

Anna Maria van Schurman

She was a very interesting woman, a prodigy who spoke several languages, wrote philosophical and religious theses, painted portraits and made engravings. She gave this all up for religion and joined the sect started by Jean de Labadie, a Jesuit who had converted to Protestantism. All this during the seventeenth century. Her current reputation lies mainly on her paintings and engravings.

I find her writings equally interesting. When Schurman was twenty-four, she engaged in correspondence with a sixty-year old theologian at the University of Leiden, Andre Rivet. Some of this correspondence was about the proper role of women and whether sciences and learning were acceptable for a Christian woman. So little seems to have changed in some ways.

Here is what Schurman says about the education of women:

[Schurman believed in her argument, but she also enjoyed using the arts of rhetoric. After citing classical authorities who argue for the education of men:]

But they are apt to argue that pulling the needle and distaff is an ample enough school for women. I confess many have been thus persuaded, and those of today who are maliciously inclined agree with them in many cases.

But we who seek the voice of reason, not of received custom, do not accept this rule of Lesbos. By what law, I ask, have these things become our lot? Divine or human? They will never demonstrate that these limits by which we are forced into an order are ordained by fate or prescribed from heaven. [pp.43-44]

Makes a feminist proud, doesn't she? Alas, she later backs off from this statement:

[Rivet's response was harsh, accusing Schurman of believing that women's minds "equaling and perhaps surpassing the minds of men," and reminding her of Paul's words that "woman is the weaker vessel." Schurman ignored the second statement and dealt with only the latter part of the first. In this way she was able---with more than a little flattery---to assure the elderly and powerful Rivet that they were in perfect agreement:]

...I suffered no small pain in seeing that either because of the obscurity of my defective writing style or because of my lack of skill in distinguishing, I have managed to impress on your mind a meaning far different from my intention, as if, that is to say, I so thoughtlessly favor that invidious and groundless assertion of the preeminence of our sex compared with yours that I would blithely raise it with you....

...[I]f the virtues of our order (i.e., maidens) ought to be preached rightly, I very much desire that that role be handed over to you who are a sublime herald of the virtues. [pp.54-55]

She also agreed that only "maidens" could spend time on studies, whereas wives and mothers had far too much on their plates already. Even this sounds a little familiar. It is interesting to read about someone who lived so long ago and find that she isn't really that different from us living today. Though I would never join a sect that wasn't started to honor me, of course.
You can see a portrait of Anna Maria van Schurman here.