Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678) was a philosopher and a Dutch polymath. She spoke more than a dozen ancient and modern languages when women were officially excluded from colleges, universities and intellectual academies, when women were rarely given any formal education at all. That her genius was recognized is all the more remarkable.
She was neither a traditional Aristotelian philosopher nor a modern scholar who challenged the Aristotelians, but in expressing her views on contemporary scholasticism in depth correspondence with leading intellectual figures of her day, she charted her own unique path. And, her path was to articulate a breath of arguments advocating women’s education.
Anna Maria van Schurman demonstrated her intellect through her linguistic abilities. She was fluent in ancient languages such as Hebrew, Greek and Latin and in modern languages such as English, French, German. She was also a poet, a philosopher, an embroiderer, and a painter.
Some have divided Anna Maria van Schurman’s life into two periods: an early time of learning, philosophy, painting, and literature, and a later era of religious conviction and the rejection of her previous secular ways. But there is a thread of unity that weaves together both periods: throughout her long life, van Schurman was a woman of great conviction, and also a confident and independently minded person. She very deliberately did not allow the gender norms of her day to prevent her from achieving a deep education and a level of intellectual fame that was simply remarkable for any woman.
She was an inspiration and mentor to many men and women, including Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, and a challenging debater for many others, including Descartes. In her later life, she was an inspiration and mentor to many people who sought a new form of religious life, including most prominently the famous Quaker William Penn.
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