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1Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678) might appear, in retrospect, as an improbable feminist. If one were to read only her autobiography, Eukleria seu Melioris Partis Electio, one might even conclude that she had changed the views for which she is justly famous and that she abandoned her support for the education of women [1]. Both of these initial and misleading impressions result from what was a dominant but varying feature of her life, namely, her religious faith. Therefore, any attempt to provide a balanced account of her contribution to seventeenth-century discussions of women’s natural capacities and their appropriate roles in society must at least acknowledge the depth of her Christian faith, the changing theological expressions of that faith that she adopted, and the underlying thesis about the equality of men and women from which she never resiled. This thesis about equality was explained and defended in a short tract entitled Dissertatio de ingenii muliebris ad doctrinam et meliores litteras aptitudine, which was published in Leiden in 1641 [2]. Van Schurman was born into a Calvinist family and, during the period when she was composing the Dissertatio, she was a devout and theologically informed Christian in the anti-Remonstrant Calvinist church. She lived close to the Dom Cathedral in Utrecht and attended the lectures of the well-known theologian, Gysbertus Voetius, at the recently established University of Utrecht. Her knowledge of languages, including Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, made it possible for her to read the Bible in its original languages and to consult texts written by Greek and Latin philosophers or other authors of antiquity, including the so-called Fathers of the Christian church. This unique coincidence of native genius, genuine religious faith, and the rigorous tradition of Calvinism that was espoused by Voetius after the Synod of Dort (1618-19), prompted the following question: is it appropriate for a Christian woman to engage in higher studies? The Dissertatio was written to support an affirmative reply to that question.

2There were at least three reasons widely proposed for the opposite reply. The most common reason focused on the term “woman,” and argued that women lacked the innate or natural capacities that are required for study or, in other words, that women were naturally inferior to men. Opponents of equality identified various ways in which this natural inferiority was allegedly manifested. It consisted simply in a lack of intelligence (if that term is used to denote a capacity to understand the subject matter of studies), or a lack of motivation, or a lack of other necessary conditions for study. The second and equally prevalent reason given, especially among strict Calvinists, focused on the term “Christian” and argued that it was inappropriate for a Christian woman to engage in studies. The positions defended on this issue evidently depended on how different Christian churches defined themselves in relation to the books of the New Testament that they accepted as canonical, and I return to some of the philosophical issues that arise in that context in Section I below. Finally, there was a third type of objection, which was expressed in particular by one of Van Schurman’s theological correspondents, André Rivet (1595-1651), to the effect that studies were redundant or superfluous for women because they were excluded from the various offices and employments for which study is a specific training. This utilitarian understanding of study assumed that the social conditions of women were satisfactory, that they did not require study to perform their limited roles adequately, and therefore that it was both a waste of resources and irrational for women to undertake expensive and difficult studies when they were excluded from the public offices or duties for which such studies were exclusively designed. It was a simple and alluring Aristotelian argument: if a given activity is designed as a means to achieve a particular end, it is irrational to embark on the means while knowing that the end is incapable of realization.

3Given the terms in which Van Schurman defined the question: “Whether the study of letters and the fine arts, above all else, is appropriate for young women,” [3] it was equally challenging for her to establish a reliable starting-point or foundation from which to argue for a positive answer. She approached this challenge by qualifying her thesis and thereby avoided objections that could be answered readily. For example, she was not arguing, as had Lucrezia Marinella (1571-1653) in Nobiltà et l’eccellenza delle donne, co’ difetti et mancamenti degli uomoni, that women were generally superior to men. She clarified her thesis in reply to a misunderstanding by Rivet. “I seem to have supported uncritically an invidious and empty claim about the superiority of our sex in comparison with yours.” Instead, she emphasized that the phrase “above all else” in her thesis did not involve a comparison with men, but a comparison between the various activities in which women might engage if they had sufficient leisure, and she was not therefore claiming that “women are more suited to study than men.” [4] Her thesis concerned the equality of men and women, and in that context she explicitly supported Marie de Gournay’s The Equality of Men and Women, while adding immediately: “I would not dare, nor do I wish, to approve it fully in every respect.” [5]

4Secondly, she was not claiming that all women were equally competent to engage in higher studies, or that all of them enjoyed the family circumstances and financial resources that are necessary for such study. At the outset of the Dissertatio she limited the scope of her thesis so that it did not apply to all women—or, at least, that it applied to women only in the same general way that it applied to men. Accordingly, study would be appropriate only for those women who had a minimum natural capacity for study; those who were exceptionally unintelligent could not, therefore, be used as counter-evidence to the thesis. Likewise, any advanced study of the kind envisaged presupposed that the person studying had acquired elementary education at home or from a tutor, and that the prospective student had enough time at their disposal—free from burdensome work at home, on a farm, etc.—to engage in study.

5Van Schurman added similar qualifications to her use of the term “Christian,” the clarification or definition of which provided most room for potential disagreement. There were evidently many contemporaries who were Christian in name only, and for whom that denomination had no implications for any claims about study. Van Schurman wrote simply: “When I say ‘a Christian woman’, I mean someone who both professes to be a Christian and is actually such in practice.” [6]

6The arguments in favour of Schurman’s thesis, therefore, were based on her understanding of what she meant by being a Christian, and on whether women in general were as competent as men to undertake studies.

1 – Is study appropriate for Christians?

7Since all the Christian sects in the seventeenth century that were relevant to this dispute accepted similar canonical books of the New Testament as being, in some sense, divine revelation and as binding on the conscience of believers, it was a commonplace for participants in the debate to quote biblical texts in support of their own position. At the same time, the radical disagreement about the interpretation of biblical texts that had provoked the Reformation implied that appeals to the authority of the Bible were effective only among those who shared the same understanding of those texts and of the authority, or otherwise, of different churches to provide official interpretations of them. There was also a second and potentially more far-reaching basis for disagreement in a religious fundamentalism that denied the significance of all studies, for men or women, and attributed such transcendent importance to religious faith and practice that all earthly endeavours, including study, were reduced to complete insignificance. That is the kind of consideration that Rivet introduced in his correspondence with Van Schurman, which was subsequently endorsed by her when she followed Jean de Labadie (1610–1674) into exile, during the later quietist and contemplative phase of her life.

8Rivet had been professor of theology at Leiden until 1632, when he assumed the post of tutor to the royal prince in The Hague. Van Schurman corresponded with him prior to publication of her Dissertatio, seeking his opinion of the draft work and replying to his objections. One of those objections reflected the anti-intellectual stance that was most famously expressed by Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ. [7] That book, which rivalled the Bible in popularity and appeared in hundreds of editions, repeatedly invoked a false disjunction between scholarly learning and simple religious faith, and endorsed the latter at the expense of the former.


What will it avail thee to dispute learnedly about the Trinity if thou lack humility and thus displease the Trinity? High-sounding words do not make a man holy and righteous; but a virtuous life endeareth him to God. I had rather feel contrition than understand the definition thereof. If thou didst know the whole Bible by heart and the teachings of all the philosophers, what would all this avail thee without the love of God and without his grace? [8]

10The conclusion for which à Kempis argued is that “a humble rustic that serves God is better than a proud philosopher who, neglecting the good life, contemplates the courses of the stars.” [9]

11When Van Schurman reflected on her earlier studies in Eukleria, she referred to the “excellent little book of Thomas à Kempis” [10] and endorsed his pessimistic evaluation of learning by rejecting the thesis that she had defended previously in the Dissertatio:


I believed at that time that I ought to learn everything that I could possibly know… Nonetheless, it is clear from what I wrote how far my thoughts had strayed from the warning of our Saviour, that “one thing is necessary”… My own conviction now, however, is that the slightest experience of God’s love can give us a truer and deeper knowledge of Sacred Scripture than the most comprehensive science of that sacred language itself. I also think the same judgement should be made about all the other sciences. [11]

13This radical change of view can be explained by the influence of Labadie, as a result of which Van Schurman concluded that the kind of studies that she had defended previously were irrelevant to becoming a good Christian. [12]

14This fundamentalist attitude towards the scriptures was also invoked by Rivet, when he objected to the draft version of the Dissertatio. He wrote to Van Schurman in March 1638:


The magnificent works of God, about which the Psalmist writes, may be celebrated by everyone, although only a few people know in detail about the rotation of the heavens, the relative positions of the planets, the influence of the stars, and similar phenomena. Thus it often happens that those who are considered to be most knowledgeable about such things are seen to turn away from God and to attribute everything to nature rather than to God. In contrast, those who rely on simple observation are over-awed and celebrate the wonderful works of God; they are completely satisfied with their author, while the very learned tire their brains vainly in such things and, after lengthy disquisitions, are left to dine on fresh air. [13]

16All these objections, by Rivet and the later Van Schurman, miss the point. If one argues that learning is redundant or harmful to a truly Christian life, then that applies equally to men and women. Rivet was a professor of theology, and he was not arguing that his life’s work was meaningless; rather, he wished to argue that theological studies were appropriate for men but not for women. That thesis, however, could not be demonstrated simply by contrasting the simple faith of rustics with the potentially misleading learning of scholars.

17At that point Rivet reverted to a few sentences in letters written to early Christians, which assumed gendered roles for women in the church and the household. These included the injunction against women teaching or having authority over men [14], and the allusion to women as “the weaker vessel.” [15] Such selective quotations failed to address the question that was notoriously disputed among biblical scholars of the period: whether the Bible taught the social distinctions to which it alluded as if they were divinely established, or whether it merely reflected the customs and social arrangements of the period in which those letters were written. Galileo had famously raised this question in 1615, when he took his cue from Augustine’s De Genesi ad Litteram and argued that “the Bible […] was not written to teach us astronomy.” [16] It was similarly arguable that the Bible’s doctrinal content did not extend to the role of women in the family or the church, and that references to such matters in books of the New Testament merely reflected the social conditions of their authors. Hence, seventeenth-century commentators explicitly addressed the question of distinguishing the theological content of the scriptures from the historical, social, and linguistic contingencies in which it was expressed.

18There were many philosophical questions that arose in this context, the most fundamental of which was the evidence on the basis of which an individual or a church should accept some ancient book —the original copies of which were all lost—as containing the word of God. This presupposed an act of faith about the inspired content of the Scriptures, since there was no independent confirmation from God that the Scriptures contained divine teaching. In reflecting on that first step, John Locke commented on the circularity of so-called “enthusiasts” who lack any independent guide to what is or is not divinely revealed in the Scriptures: “It is a Revelation because they firmly believe it, and they believe it, because it is a Revelation.” [17] In other words, people first believe that certain writings are divinely inspired and thereby acquire their authoritative status as guides to religious belief; once they are given that status, believers then accept on faith (a second act of faith, or the same act duplicated) the content of what the Scriptures teach.

19Even if believers accepted in some general sense that the New Testament included divine revelation, they still had to make sense of how God could speak to them in human language and whether all the connotations of the words used were equally part of the revealed doctrine [18]. Locke argued in The Reasonableness of Christianity that the gospel had been preached to an uneducated people by Jesus Christ, and that the core beliefs of the faith should therefore be understood in the language and context in which they were originally presented. The Scriptures were


a Collection of Writings designed by God for the Instruction of the illiterate bulk of Mankind in the way of Salvation; and therefore generally and in necessary points to be understood in the plain direct meaning of the words and phrases, such as they may be supposed to have had in the mouths of the Speakers, who used them according to the Language of that Time and Country wherein they lived, without such learned, artificial, and forced senses of them, as are sought out, and put upon them in most of the Systems of Divinity. [19]

21Locke went further and argued that what he called the “Fundamental Articles of the Faith” were limited to the gospels and the Acts, because when Paul and others (John, James, et al.) sent epistles to various churches, they wrote to people who were already Christians and who must be assumed to have been in possession of the core beliefs of Christianity [20]. Such letters, therefore, cannot be understood as containing any essential features of Christian doctrine.

22In summary, those (including Labadie) who were inspired by Jansenist and radical Calvinist views about the irrelevance of learning for living an authentic Christian life had to choose within a range of implausible or unacceptable alternatives. One was that they could understand the Scriptures without knowing the languages in which they were written. Since that was impossible, they had the option of devolving the interpretation of the scriptures to a few scholars or to members of a central teaching authority, while other Christians would passively accept what they were taught. The Council of Trent (Session IV: 8 April 1546) forcefully endorsed the latter option, but that could not have been shared by Rivet or Van Schurman [21]. The only remaining alternative was to distinguish those who were sufficiently gifted to interpret the Scriptures from others who had to believe what they were told.

23That invited the question whether there was a basis in the Bible to make that distinction along gendered lines. This question remains unresolved within many Christian churches today. There was nothing more than tradition or custom to support the claim that women were ineligible to interpret the Scriptures or teach the gospel. However, any appeal to custom assumed a version of the circular argument that Locke identified: in this case, one appeals to one’s faith to decide which details of what is written in the Scriptures were taught by God and, once they are accepted as divinely revealed, those details acquire an epistemic or doctrinal status that makes them unchallengeable. For some believers, then, the limited roles to which women were admitted in the early Christian Church—which were also a matter of empirical dispute—were converted into a doctrine that was revealed by God. For others, they were merely expressions of the social customs of the time and place in which the Christian church emerged from its Jewish origins.

24Van Schurman challenged the suggestion that Christians and, in particular women, should blindly or uncritically follow the biblical interpretations of others. One reason was that most Christian churches of the period classified the doctrinal teachings of other churches as heretical, and preached that those who adopted a heresy (knowingly or otherwise) were destined for eternal damnation. Even Van Schurman herself had changed her allegiance, over time, from the strict scholastic Calvinism of Voetius to the mystical quietism of Labadie, and neither of those theological positions absolved its adherents from the serious duty of avoiding heresy. Therefore, unless one were to follow blindly whatever preacher one wished, Christians (or at least those who were capable of benefiting from study) needed appropriate lear- ning to identify and avoid heresy. The tenth argument in the Dissertatio relied on that premise, as follows:


Whatever protects us against heresies and uncovers their traps is appropriate for a Christian woman. But the sciences, etc. Therefore,.. The justification of the major premise is obvious, since no Christian should neglect their duty in this common danger. The minor premise is proved, because a more sound philosophy is like a breastplate and (if I may use the words of Clement of Alexandria) it is like the fence of the Lord’s vineyard or of the Saviour’s teachings; or—to use a simile that pleased Basil the Great—when combined with the gospel, it resembles leaves that provide an ornament and protection for their own fruit. Spurious or corrupt reason, by which heresies are best supported, is certainly refuted more easily by using right reason.

26This is confirmed by van Schurman’s fourteenth argument, to the effect that ignorance is “a blindness and mental darkness” that is conducive to vice and, therefore, inappropriate for a Christian woman. [22]

27Those, like Rivet, who opposed a woman’s right to education argued incoherently that all Christians were morally bound to avoid heresy, and that most Christians should be denied access to the only means by which they might distinguish between heresy and authentic religious doctrine. They then relied on custom to assign women exclusively to the latter category.

2 – The natural equality of men and women

28The Dissertatio is presented as a series of fourteen syllogisms in favour of the thesis that “the study of letters is appropriate for a Christian woman,” together with the author’s replies to various objections. If such arguments and objections are to avoid an infinite regress, they must begin with propositions that are agreed by both sides or, if one aims merely to refute an opponent, from premises that are accepted by them. Van Schurman adopts both alternatives and, in doing so, addresses in various ways the issue of whether women’s nature is inferior to that of men.

29The fundamental argument was that women have the same natural capacities as men in relation to study. This is implied by the commonplace assumption that women have the same form as men – i.e. human reason – if the term “form” is understood as scholastic philosophers (including Calvinist theologians at Utrecht or Leiden) used it [23]. This conclusion was also supported by linking empirical evidence with a scholastic axiom that “acts cannot occur without the corresponding principles” [24]; since at least some women have succeeded in studying as successfully as some men, it follows that their nature must be such that it is capable of those actions.

30Despite the spectacular learning of Van Schurman, however, it was evident to all who engaged in this controversy that there were very few learned women in the seventeenth century, that many women could not read or write even in their vernacular [25], and that this uncontested evidence was exploited by opponents of women’s equality to argue that, in general, women lacked the natural ability required to study. This obviously begged the question about the provision of education to girls or young women. To test the comparative natural abilities of men and women, it would have been necessary to provide them both with similar educational opportunities and then determine if they were equally successful. Van Schurman had clarified at the very beginning of the Dissertatio that she was not claiming that all women were suited to higher studies, no more than all men. Her thesis, rather, was that there was no basis for a gender-based distinction between men or women in relation to their capacities to engage in higher studies.

31Rivet’s proposal grudgingly acknowledged the logic of this argument, but then claimed that Van Schurman’s thesis, while it was true, was inapplicable until suitable academies for women’s education were founded.


You yourself would readily admit that they [young women] could not all be self-taught, or that they would all have parents who would arrange for them in their homes the kind of education that you happened to enjoy. Nor would it be appropriate for them to attend schools for males, integrated with the boys. [26]

33This argument could have been made with equal validity about men, by substituting the word “men” for “women,” so that not all men could be self-taught, etc. Therefore, the lack of educational opportunities for girls implied no conclusion about their native ability (ingenium) or about the likely results of providing such facilities. At this point, Rivet changed direction to argue about the objectives or ends of study, by assuming that their only objective was to prepare students for the specific offices or employments in which they were subsequently employed. For example, someone who studied geometry might become an artillery officer, or those who studied law might work as tax officials who knew how to implement royal decrees effectively in a population that was very reluctantly tax-compliant. The customary exclusion of women from all such offices, including all offices of authority in the Christian churches, thus gave Rivet the opportunity to argue as follows:


Now since it is undisputed that the female sex is not suited for political or ecclesiastical offices, and especially for teaching publicly, why would young women work to acquire learning that is designed for those objectives from which they are excluded, unless perhaps you make an exception for a few who are allowed in some nations to succeed to the throne when male heirs are unavailable? The Apostle says: “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” If women are bound by this, then it is particularly appropriate that young women not be involved in it; therefore, they do not need the specific learning that is concerned with speaking well, if you take account of how that learning is used. [27]

35This was another transparent case of petitio principii. Rivet had to assume that the custom of excluding women from the public offices did not require any justification. However, it also assumed a utilitarian justification for all studies, so that Van Schurman had to consider how best to reply diplomatically to both assumptions.

36She conceded that men might continue to assume exclusive responsibility for preaching within the reformed churches. Nonetheless, even such a division of labour within Calvinism – which had significantly reduced the number of sacraments that were previously recognised within Christianity (from seven to two), and consequently reduced the status and role of the priesthood [28] – failed to address two fundamental issues. One was that the exclusion of women from study breached the laws of equity: “But we who seek the voice of reason rather than of received custom do not accept this Lesbian rule. By what law, I ask, did this fall to our lot: by divine law or human law? They will never prove that these restrictions, by which we are certainly forced into line, are determined by fate or prescribed by God.” [29] Despite this statement of principle, however, Van Schurman seemed to make a distinction between respecting the customs of the society and period in which she lived, and being excluded from the studies that usually prepared young men for offices in the church or the state.

37Thus, at the beginning of the Dissertatio, she listed among the studies that are appropriate for young women, grammar, logic, rhetoric, physics, metaphysics, history, and knowledge of languages, especially those languages in which the Bible was written. Her only reservation applied to studies that were specifically oriented to public offices from which women were excluded; however, while accepting that exclusion, she defended the appropriateness for women of a theoretical knowledge of those disciplines:


I do not recommend as strongly those studies that pertain to the practice of law, military affairs, or the art of public speaking in a temple, court, or academy, because they are less appropriate or necessary. However, we do not concede at all that a woman should be excluded from a scholastic or, as it is called, a theoretical knowledge of those things, especially the very noble discipline of politics. [30]

39The thesis of the Dissertatio, therefore, was not that some kind of limited curriculum of studies should be established for young women, but that all studies were equally appropriate for men and women, even if some were less highly recommended as long as the custom prevailed of excluding women from public offices.

40Thus the exclusion of women from ecclesiastical offices did not imply that they should also be excluded from the theological studies that trained men for offices that custom reserved for them within churches. Such a conclusion failed to address the challenge of the argument already discussed above, that an enforced ignorance deprived women of the ability to choose between those who preached heresy and those who preached the genuine doctrines of the gospel. It also failed to provide any plausible connection between the practice of Christian virtue and the knowledge required to distinguish good from evil:


For, I ask, would it not be temerity to wish to build the whole economy of moral virtues on ignorance and commonly held opinions? […] there is nothing more useful for a young woman, and nothing more necessary, than to distinguish between right and wrong, between what is harmless and harmful, between the appropriate and the inappropriate. [31]

42If women are not to be misguided by heretical preachers, it follows that they should not be prevented from informing themselves as best they can, by study, of the most plausible guides to good living.

43Van Schurman offered a third reason for defending women’s right of access to all studies, by quoting an Aristotelian principle that was expressed in the opening lines of the Metaphysics: “All men by nature desire to know.” [32] She explicitly rejected the utilitarian reduction of study as if it were merely a means to an end:


There are others who seem not to acknowledge that study has any objective other than riches or empty fame, or as training for service in some public office, which is a fundamental and rather shameful falsehood, as if it were a complete waste of time to philosophize “in order to escape from ignorance.” [33]

45In contrast, many of the arguments deployed in the Dissertatio assumed that study was a way for human beings to fulfil their natural potential and to realize objectives that were intrinsic to the activity of study itself. According to Aristotle, there were both moral and intellectual virtues, and study was the practice that was required to acquire the latter. “Virtue, then, is of two kinds: that of the intellect and that of character. Intellectual virtue owes its origin and development mainly to teaching, for which reason its attainment requires experience and time.” [34] Thus study perfects the mind (argument viii) and fills it with a natural pleasure that is worthy of human beings (argument xiii). Study also made it possible for women to achieve other extrinsic objectives apart from offices or employments; for example, it provided a way of knowing God through his creation (argument ix), and of avoiding idleness and its alleged temptations to vice (argument iv).

46Van Schurman’s defence of the educational rights of women was evidently articulated within a scholastic framework, in which participants were expected to develop their theses in the form of syllogisms and to appeal to recognized authorities as foundations on which to rest their claims [35]. In that sense, Van Schurman was simply arguing in accordance with the standards of her time. She was applying to women the views about study that were widely attributed to the most famous Greek philosophers and on which the theologians of all the Christian churches relied to justify their prolix writings: that the acquisition of knowledge is a cultivation of one of the most characteristic features of human nature, and that it is impossible to live a good life or a Christian life without having the knowledge required to identify either one.


  • [1]
    Eukleria seu melioris partis electio. Tractatus brevem vitae eius delineationem exhibens, Altona, C. van der Meulem, 1673.
  • [2]
    This was republished together with other works in Opuscula Hebraea, Graeca, Latina, Gallica, Prosaica & Metrica, Leiden, Elsevier, 1648. I cite this as Opuscula.
  • [3]
    Opuscula, p. 66.
  • [4]
    Opuscula, p. 91, p. 92.
  • [5]
    Opuscula, p. 93.
  • [6]
    Opuscula, p. 28.
  • [7]
    The first printed edition appeared in 1486. I cite the Latin edition De imitatio Christi, libri quattuor, Antwerp, Plantinian, 1627, and the English trans. Of the Imitation of Christ, trans. Richard Whytford; rev. W. Raynal, London, Chatto and Windus, 1953.
  • [8]
    Imitatio, p. 20; Imitation, p. 33.
  • [9]
    Imitatio, p. 22; Imitation, p. 34.
  • [10]
    Eukleria, p. 22.
  • [11]
    Eukleria, pp. 30, 32. The citation of “one necessary thing” refers to Lk. 10:41–2, where Jesus was said to advise Martha that Mary had chosen the better part; this was also reproduced as an epigraph on the title page of Eukleria. “Maria optimam partem elegit.”
  • [12]
    Labadie explained his religious views in a large number of publications, which included the following: Declaration de Jean de Labadie, Montaubon, Braconier, 1650; Lettre de Jean de Labadie à ses amis de la Communion Romaine, Montaubon, Braconier, 1651; Manuel de Pieté, Middelbourg, Smidt, 1668; L’Empire du S. Esprit sur les Ames, Amsterdam, Autein, 1671.
  • [13]
    Opuscula, pp. 89–90.
  • [14]
    I Tim. 2: 11–15.
  • [15]
    I Peter 3: 7.
  • [16]
    “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” in S. Drake, ed. Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, New York, Doubleday, 1957, p. 212.
  • [17]
    John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter J. Nidditch, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1975, IV. xix. 10.
  • [18]
    Among the first to offer extensive analyses of this issue, based on their knowledge of the relevant languages, were Jean Le Clerc (1657–1736), and Richard Simon (1638–1712); however, it had already been discussed by St. Augustine, by Galileo and his critics, including Bellarmine, and by numerous theologians in different Christian churches.
  • [19]
    John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity as delivered in the Scriptures, ed. J. C. Higgins-Biddle, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1999, p. 6.
  • [20]
    John Locke, Writings on Religion, ed. V. Nuovo, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2002, p. 215.
  • [21]
    Norman P. Tanner, ed. Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, London and Washington, DC, 1990, vol. II, p. 664.
  • [22]
    Opuscula, p. 47.
  • [23]
    The commitment of Calvinist theologians to scholastic philosophy is evident in the seventeenth-century debates, in the Netherlands, between supporters and opponents of Cartesianism. See for example T. Verbeek, Descartes and the Dutch, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Southern Illinois University Press, 1992; G. Voetius, Disputationes theologicae selectae, 5 vols., Utrecht, J. à Waesberge, 1648–69; J. W. Beardslee, ed. Reformed Dogmatics, New York,Oxford University Press, 1965. In Disputationes, vol. III, p. 72, Voetius recommends readers to read Thomas à Kempis and various authors such as Augustine, Chrysostom, and others.
  • [24]
    Opuscula, p. 34.
  • [25]
    Illiteracy was not confined to women. Even one hundred years after Van Schurman’s Dissertatio, eighty-six percent of brides and seventy-one percent of grooms in France could not even sign their wedding contracts. See Philippe Ariès, Histoire de la vie privée, vol. III: De la renaissance aux Lumières, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1986, p. 76.
  • [26]
    Opuscula, p. 88.
  • [27]
    Opuscula, p. 84. The embedded quotation is from I Tim. 2: 11–15.
  • [28]
    Calvin’s Institutes increased very significantly is size from one edition to another. I quote the 1541 French edition, translated by E. A. McKee as Institutes of the Christian Religion, Grand Rapids (MI), William B. Eedermans, 2009. Calvin rejects the traditional notion that celebrants of the Eucharist are priests (p. 578), and distinguishes between human laws designed “to preserve public decency” and those required for salvation. “We have [biblical] examples of the first kind of law in St. Paul when he forbids women to teach publicly or to show themselves with uncovered heads (I Cor 14: 34; I Tim. 2: 12).What, is there such a great mystery about a woman’s hair style that it would be a great fault to go out in the street with a bare head? Is silence so much commanded that she cannot speak without great offence?,” pp. 653–654.
  • [29]
    Opuscula, p. 68.
  • [30]
    Opuscula, pp. 32–33.
  • [31]
    Opuscula, p. 76.
  • [32]
    980 a 22.
  • [33]
    Opuscula, p. 49. The quotation from Aristotle refers to Metaphysics, Book I, chap. 2 [982 b 20]: “Therefore since they [the earliest philosophers] philosophized in order to escape ignorance, evidently they were pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end.”
  • [34]
    Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. R. Crisp, Cambridge University Press, 2000, 1103 a 5.Online
  • [35]
    She wrote to Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia: “It is true that I have great respect for the scholastic doctors.” (Opuscula, p. 301). Most of the Calvinist theologians with whom she was likely to discuss women’s education, in 1641, were equally sympathetic to Aristotelian philosophy.

Opponents of women’s education assumed that women were less naturally gifted than men, that education was inappropriate for Christian women, or that it was irrational to educate women because they could not fulfil the civil and ecclesiastical offices for which education was the required preparation. Van Schurman argued against all three assumptions in her Dissertatio (1641). She presented her arguments as syllogisms, which she based on the authority of the Bible, on the Christian churches’ understanding of human nature, and on the necessity of knowledge to acquire virtues and to avoid falling into heresy. Van Schurman concluded that education was appropriate for women, in general, for exactly the same reasons as it was appropriate for men.

Desmond M. Clarke
University College Cork
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