03 May 2006

anna maria van schurman

anna maria van schurman

I recently finished reading Whether a Christian Woman Should Be Educated by Anna Maria van Schurman (trans. and ed. by Joyce L. Irwin, University of Chicago, 1998). Schurman (1607-1678) was a Dutch Reformed woman of an aristocratic family, highly educated, who kept up a lively correspondence with various European intellectuals, was mentored theologically by Gijsbert Voetius, and vigorously defended the intelligence of women and their role in Christian learning.

While Schurman's views on the role of women may be a bit outdated today and certainly were not "egalitarian" in the contemporary sense, her views were nonetheless progressive in her own day. Indeed, some shifts within early modern philosophy, culture, and law actually represented a step backwards in the status of women, away from the gains they had made during the medieval period.

One interesting feature of Schurman's views is the way in which she gave them a extended theological and philosophical defense, drawing upon a wide range of sources: biblical, classical, and historical. The book includes not only her writing on the question of women's education, but also correspondence with other women and with the theologian Andre Rivet. An appendix includes extended selections translated from Voetius's Politica Ecclesiastica, a sort of Dutch Reformed equivalent to Hooker's Anglican work on ecclesiastical polity.

Part of Voetius's comments on the status and condition of women are directed against 1595 pamphlet that gave a scriptural argument that women are not, in fact, fully human - though the pamphlet was likely intended originally only as a parody of Anabaptist hermeneutics. Against this pamphlet, Voetius maintains the full humanity of women, their creation in the image of God, as well as the notion that women cooperate actively in the generation of offspring and are not mere a passive vessel in which the male plants his seed.

Later Voetius deals with the issue of women's education and their ecclesiastical status, including the affirmation that women should be admitted equally with men to religious exercises, public and private, on both counts supporting the position of Schurman, whom he had mentored.

In any case, the book makes for interesting reading that provides a window not only on 17th century theology, but also the social context in which it was constructed and operated. Moreover, it provides a helpful example of the ways in which Reformed thought has often returned to Scripture and theological reflection in order to reconsider and challenge accepted cultural and even theological norms.