Anna Maria van Schurman is perhaps best known for her advocacy for education for Christian women. In the early 1600s, when her magnum opus “The Learned Maid” was published, the idea that women could acquire an education– and be just as capable of learning as men– was extremely radical. At this time, the societal expectation for women was to lead domestic lives, serve their families, and spend their time in their household. Schurman’s proposal that certain Christian women ought to study science, art, theology, and other disciplines is relatively constrictive for women based on modern standards. However, it still pushed the boundaries for women’s education in Europe during the 1640s.
In contrast, Mary Astell was a famous female philosopher who presented various works arguing for female education and empowerment at the end of the 1600s. Her work earned her the title of the “first English feminist,” as she fought against many of the patriarchal standards that forced women into leading a different life than men. Her most famous work, “A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, For the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interests,” offers an argument for creating an all-female institute for education. Her motive for an all-female school was to shelter them from the outside influences of a world dominated by men, thus allowing them to fulfill one of their purposes, which she believed was to become closer to God. This proposal ultimately failed, since her vision seemed more like a nunnery for women than a school, and so Astell moved on to arguing for why all women should become educated. In “A Serious Proposal,” Astell argues that women were made by God, just like men, to be rational creatures and that acquiring an education could allow a woman to use her rationality to understand bad customs in society. Astell, coming from a different perspective at the end of the 1600s, argued beyond the limits of the patriarchal society’s expectations of women during her time.
One significant similarity between Schurman and Astell is their belief that a woman’s education is a necessary goal for the spread of knowledge and a well-functioning domestic sphere. Schurman argues that a Christian woman should primarily acquire an education in order to bring herself closer to God, and then use that knowledge to educate her family and other women. Astell shared a similar view, arguing that the acquisition of knowledge would allow women to serve God in the best way. Like Schurman, Astell believed that women did have a gendered role in society. A woman was required to take care of her family and children, but to both philosophers, education could help further that goal by helping her learn how to manage her family, educate her children, and educate other women.
In conjunction with these household benefits of educating women, both Schurman and Astell share similar views on religious reasons for women to become educated. Schurman focuses on aligning her view with her goals, arguing that women should become educated because it will allow them to have a more “clear and distinct knowledge of God,” which she believes is virtuous for a Christian woman (Schurman 31). Astell agrees that the education of women is necessary because it will allow them to better serve God. In alignment with her female education goals, Astell argues that women ought to serve God in a specific, gendered way, which is to manage her family and educate other women (Defletsen 5). Astell’s broader belief overlaying this point is that humankind’s goal is to be as happy as possible, and that maximum happiness is derived from a great love for God. She thinks that we are all born with the innate knowledge of how to be happy, but with a formal education, we can form clear and distinct conceptions of the Divine by giving names and principles to aspects of Nature so that we can better comprehend it. By attaining an education, both philosophers agree, women will then be able to serve God in the best way possible, for they have acquired the necessary instruction to attain these religious goals in a clearer manner.
Astell also heavily emphasizes that women’s education can help protect them from what she believes to be “bad customs” in the outside world. She argues that customs lead humans to think that something is right or wrong based only on the notion that it was right or wrong in the past, rather than involving any sort of critical thought. A domestic dispute that is still contested in modern day, for example, is something like the custom of physical punishment for children. Whereas physical punishment has been a long-standing tradition for parents that many still hold onto, Astell would probably align herself with the modern psychological evidence that it is actually harmful to children and fails to truly change their behavior. Astell believed that the validity of certain customs instead ought to be based on “how well they are aligned with, or serve, our true, God-given nature” (Defletsen 6). She argues that through proper education, women would be effectively enabled to use their rationality and precise knowledge to decipher whether or not a given custom would actually help humans serve their proper ends. Speaking directly to women, Astell argues that a quality education can be useful to them, because it “develops and perfects our God-given rationality, thus enabling us to attain our end of honoring and serving God, including by helping others perfect their rationality” (Defletsen 6). This is her main goal of women’s education: They should be able to protect themselves and their families against bad customs using their rationality.
The last apparent similarity between Schurman and Astell is their shared belief that both women and men have the capacity to become educated. Schurman offers a somewhat weak view of the capability of the minds of women, arguing that since men are often allowed to gain an education with an average mind, women who have average minds should also be able to become educated. Nonetheless, Astell agrees with the notion that women can study due to their equality with men on the basis that both are rational creatures. Astell advances the controversial position that “women enjoy a natural equality with men based on the fact that the human’s essence is her unsexed rational soul,” (Detlefsen 1). She states that there is a dualism between the body and soul, in which the thinking soul is the mark of God and his divinity in humans, and that sex attaches to the body, not the soul. Therefore, she concludes that women’s essence is the same as men, as the human essence is the soul, which has no gender attached to it. Using this argument, she puts forth the idea that women are equally capable to men of making rational decisions and possessing the intellectual capacity to attain an education.
The most distinct difference between the arguments for a women’s education from Schurman and Astell is their views on which women should become educated. Schurman believes that there are many constricting characteristics to take into account when defining the type of woman capable of studying, most of which are social factors. For example, Schurman believes that a woman capable of education must have the wealth to afford it, be free from domestic duties, and have at least an average mind. Schurman is writing in the early 1600s, where the societal expectation was for women to focus on their household responsibilities. Therefore, she believed that poorer women could not become educated, as they had less time and funds to spare for such an endeavor. Astell, however, argues that all women are equally capable of being educated, and thus all women ought to be allowed to receive an education. She does not list off a set of constricting characteristics, mainly because she is arguing that women’s education should actually free them from some of society’s patriarchal standards and bad customs. Her purpose of universal education for women is precisely to help those women escape the conditions that create the constrictions that Schurman places upon them. Astell believed, very controversially, that all humans were created equally with rational capacity. She rejects the belief that only certain types of women, mainly affluent ones, should gain an education because she wished for all women to use their rational capacity to better themselves in a society with customs dictated by men.
It is perhaps helpful to note here that there is a connection between each philosopher’s differing conception of the soul and who ought to be educated. It is noteworthy that Astell thought that all women could be educated, since all women possess a sort of rational soul that is equal to all others. Schurman, on the other hand, never necessarily mentions “the soul,” but it can be inferred from her writing on intellectual capabilities that she believes rationality varies among human minds, unlike Astell. Despite the fact that people generally would describe themselves as aligning closer to Astell’s view on this point, Schurman’s idea that there is a hierarchy of rational capability is echoed in many of our modern competitive institutions and schools.
Schurman and Astell also differed on what methods women should use to attain an education. Schurman argues that women can attain an education in all disciplines, as long as their study and chosen disciplines do not conflict with their domestic duties. Her main argument (in line with her aforementioned religious goals) was that women should mainly study theology and any discipline with virtue, which she extends to include science and art, among several others. Schurman argues that studying science and art is fit for a Christian woman because these disciplines can bring them closer to their virtues, thus providing them with a higher love for God through the clear and distinct knowledge of God that these subjects provide. Science, for example, can be said to give one a better understanding of the natural world which is of God’s creation, and therefore equates to knowledge of God. In contrast, Astell argues that women should only gain an education in theology and philosophy. Studying theology, she argues, helps lead a woman towards a more precise and distinct knowledge of how she can best serve God. She also thought that studying philosophy is valuable in that it trains women’s rational souls and reasoning skills so that they can better apply their knowledge to their lives. She thought education was necessary for women because it would allow them to stop spending their time engaging in frivolous activities only to please men– Instead, it would guide them towards achieving their ends of serving God. Astell also originally suggested that females should become educated in a religious retreat, separated from men and the outside world, at an all-female institute. This was due to her belief that bad customs are spread in the outside world by men who were only trying to achieve their ends without any consideration of women. These customs should be avoided and reevaluated when women have attained their own education. Becoming educated in a private religious environment would allow women to leave the outside world’s distractions for a more comprehensive and valuable education.