Encyclopedia Womannica

Beautiful Minds: Anna Maria van Schurman

Episode Summary

Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678) was considered the most highly educated woman in 17th century Europe. She was an artist and scholar who fought for women’s right to education.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Beautiful Mind was considered the most brilliant and highly educated woman of 17th Century Europe. A visual artist, poet, writer, linguist, and scholar, she was best known for her lifelong advocacy for women’s education and for questioning the role that women should play in society. Let’s talk about Anna Maria van Schurman.

Anna Maria was born in Cologne in 1607 to a wealthy Dutch family originally from Antwerp. 

From a very early age, Anna Maria was considered a child prodigy. She could easily read and translate Latin and Greek by seven years old, and by eleven, she had learned German, French, Spanish, Italian, English and ancient Hebrew. She was eventually proficient in 14 languages.

Anna Maria was also a highly accomplished young artist who distinguished herself in drawing, painting, etching, embroidery and even sculpture, which she mostly did in wax. 

Her father, who was very proud of his brilliant daughter, gave her the same serious classical education she would have received had she been a boy. That was quite unusual in the 17th century. As a result, Anna Maria became an advocate for women’s education from an early age.

In 1634, Anna Maria was asked to write a poem to honor the opening of the University of Utrecht. The poem was a celebration of the city of Utrecht and its new university, but it also called out the university for excluding women. 

As a result, Anna Maria, then 29 years old, was invited to attend the University of Utrecht as its first female student. She was forced to sit behind a curtain while in class because the administration believed her presence would be a distraction to the male students. Still, with a degree in law, she became the university’s first female graduate. 

After graduation, Anna Maria increased her work on the importance of equal education for women. She didn’t believe that women should just receive some education, she believed that they should receive the same education as men. This, along with her belief that women should be educated for the sake of receiving an education and not just for employment, was very radical for the time, even amongst other women’s education advocates.

Most of Anna Maria’s writings on education were published in the 1640s and 1650s, including her masterwork, a book entitled Whether the Study of Letters is Fitting for a Christian Woman, published in 1646. In it, she argued that anybody with principles, ability and drive should be able to receive a thorough education in all subjects. 

Anna Maria followed her book up with a series of articles that argued, among other things, that women’s brains functioned just as effectively as men’s brains, and that choosing not to educate women was wholly detrimental to their abilities. 

During this period, Anna Maria was taking part in intellectual discourse with other great minds of her age, including Rene Descartes.

In the 1660s, Anna Maria became involved with a religious sect founded by a de-frocked Jesuit priest named Jean de Labadie, whom she met through her brother. When Labadie formed a separatist community for his group in Amsterdam in 1669, Anna Maria sold her home in Utrecht and joined the Labadist community as one of its leaders.

This religious turn caused a major rift between Anna Maria and many of the intellectuals with whom she had previously worked and corresponded. Still, she stuck to her new beliefs, and along with about 400 other Labadists, she attempted to practice total detachment from the secular world for the rest of her life. 

Anna Maria died in 1678 at the age of 70.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Beautiful Mind

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!