Anna Maria van Schurman was a lead philosopher of her time, known for her groundbreaking views on women’s education. In one of her most famous texts, “Whether the Study of Letters is Fitting for a Christian Woman,” Schurman puts forth her main view that education can be fitting for a Christian woman. To study, in her vocabulary, is “the diligent and eager application of the mind,” and letters are “the knowledge of the language, history, and all disciplines” (Schurman 25). She says that it must be the right and proper thing to do for something to be fitting for a person. Thus, she argues that studying a variety of disciplines is right and proper for a Christian woman.
Schurman puts forth a few key characteristics that limit the type of Christian woman fit to study. First, she argues that a woman needs to have at least an average ability to learn. The next characteristic required is that the woman can learn even if they lack excess wealth, meaning they can learn even with limited means. Lastly, she says that women who are fit to study must be free from excessive domestic duties. They must have the time to commit to their education altogether.
From here, Schurman puts forth her argument on the goal of the education of women. She argues that the goal is for the salvation of the soul and that women may “emerge the better and happier and may educate and guide her family…and be useful to her whole sex” (Shurman 26). Thus, it stands that Shurman believes the goal of a woman becoming educated is to become closer to God and to stand as an example to educate her family and other capable women. She then narrows her definition of the fittingness of studying by saying that the study of letters fits as an occupation for Christian women that moves them closer to loving God.
To argue for her thesis, Schurman puts forth a variety of arguments that show women have the characteristics to study. She structures her arguments as syllogisms, in which she presents a major premise and minor premise to argue her point and arrives at a conclusion from the premises. The major premise Schurman offers is that women long for a “solid and enduring occupation” (Shurman 28). She argues that the consequent of the major premise is proven because studying is the manner that “directs all movements of the soul itself.” (Schurman 28). Also, any occupation that is serious and perpetual withstands emptiness the most effectively. The argument she makes here is that women are full of emptiness due to their lack of occupation, and the occupation of studying can be the most effective way to give a woman an enduring way to spend her time. The minor premise Schurman offers for this argument is that women are the most vulnerable to vanity and weakness due to their lack of intellect, and those who are “in the greatest danger of vanity” need a stable and constant occupation to protect them (Schurman 28). She provides substance to prove her minor premise, by saying that people who have an excess of wealth tend to have more leisure, and those with an abundance of leisure need the most enduring occupations to fill their time. Thus, she concludes that education and the study of letters are the most fitting to be an enduring occupation and fill women with what they lack and protect them from the dangers of vanity. This ties into her restricting characteristics that the fittest women to study have an excess of wealth.
At the time Schurman is writing this work, her focus is predominantly on wealthy Christian women. The close friends in her circle are elite, royal, and have more opportunities to pursue what they want. When women come from a wealthy family, they tend to need not have to work, and have more free time, naturally spent doing domestic duties. Schurman proposes that these types of women need something intellectual and fulfilling to occupy their time. The wealthy women who spend their days sitting around idly are those most vulnerable to vanity and weaknesses not fitting for a Christian woman.
Another central argument Schurman offers is how science and art are fitting and beneficial for a Christian woman. Schurman offers the argument that studying is fitting for people whose ignorance is not fitting. She offers the major premise that ignorance is not fitting for a Christian woman (Schurman 33). Schurman argues for this by saying that whatever causes a defect in a person’s will and action is not fitting for a woman. She then argues further that ignorance causes a defect in the will and action, therefore not fitting for a Christain woman. Schurman then proves the minor premise by arguing that ignorance causes vices, as “the perfect who does not know how much he does not know will think himself perfectly fine” (Schurman 33). She also argues that after ignorance comes the smallest lack of discipline, leading to vices in a person. From these premises and proof, she concludes that women are fit to study, as ignorance is not fitting for Christian women.
Schurman’s primary goal in fighting for the education of Christian women is to allow them to have the ability to be closer to God. When women lack education, she argues that they tend to be shrouded in ignorance. Ignorant people tend to have more vices than those who are educated and less ignorant about the world. Because being a Christan, and becoming closer to God is the primary goal, having an excess of vices would not fit, as vices push people further away from the perfection of God. Therefore, Schurman concludes that in order for a typical woman to fulfill her mission of becoming closer to God, she needs to become educated in various disciplines to cease her ignorance and diminish her vices.
There are a few fundamental objections to her view that Schurman raises and responds to accordingly. The first objection is that those with too weak of a mind are not fit to study and that women are known to have weaker minds. Schurman responds to this by arguing that one does not need a tremendous mental capacity to study, as seen by the fact that many men with average minds who have attained an education. Her argument then stands that all a Christian woman needs is an average mind to have the capability to study. Another main objection is that “those whose studies fail their proper ends are ill fitted for them,” in that the end goal of studying is supposedly a vocation in public duties (Schurman 35). Women rarely engage in political or public vocations. Schurman responds to this objection by arguing that for a Christian woman, the goal of studying is to become more knowledgeable and closer to God, and they can fulfill this goal despite not contributing to public duties. Schurman argues that Christian women are fit to study for various reasons separate from the traditional views on men becoming educated. So her arguments are based around these goals specific to women.
This piece by Schurman is an incredible display of her genius and devotion to education. As an intelligent woman living and studying in a world dominated by male thinkers, Schurman pushes a controversial argument and does it well. Nearly all well-known Enlightenment philosophers failed to approach the massive ideological hurdle of equality for women. Schurman seems fully aware in “Whether the Study of Letters is Fitting for a Christian Woman” that she is taking on a hefty problem in ideologically challenging the status quo of all seventeenth-century Europe. In part, the fate of what she argues for rests in her ability to write a compelling piece. If Schurman were to slip up or produce a work anything other than perfect, it could have been a damning piece of evidence for why women ought not to be allowed to pursue education. However, she delivered an organized and masterful essay that put forth a sensible argument and demonstrated her impressive intellectual talent. This essay is a significant piece of groundwork that paved the way for women to be included in academic affairs the way they are today.