Whatever is conducive to a genuine magnanimity of soul is appropriate for a Christian women.--Anna Maria Van Schurman
Marie le Jars de Gournay's The Equality of Men and Women and Anna Maria van Schurman's A Dissertation on the Natural Capacity of Women for Study and Learning are brought together in Desmond Clarke's useful translation. While there are non-trivial differences in their premises and argumentative strategies, both argue – seemingly en passant -- that woman can possess 'genuine magnanimity.' De Gournay offers two examples of magnanimous women:* the Biblical Judith and Joan of Arc, who De Gournay presents (in a poetic adaptation of Aeneid) as an Amazon (70-1). In context, De Gournay is interested in presenting public actions that explain the “general advantages and endowments of the female sex.” The pairing of Judith with Joan of Arc, whose “action” seems “to have been similar, and was accompanied by many similar circumstances,” (71) is unusual because while Judith exhibits great courage and decisiveness at the crucial moment, she survives by deploying her incredible looks with refined wile—it’s not the first thing that comes to mind with “the maid of Orleans.” While Judith is very pious, it is odd to describe her victory of Holofernes as “a gift of God’s special grace to women rather than a purely human and voluntary event.” (71) Rather, Judith exhibits the truth of that old maxim that God looks favorably on those who help themselves.
Yet, the mystery is not so great as I make it seem. De Gournay makes clear in what sense the “action" of Judith and Joan of Arc is "similar:" it pertains to “the salvation” of a “kingdom and its prince.” That is, the women she praises as magnanimous are in addition to being courageous capable of ensuring the survival of the state, first, and its sovereign, second. From this vantage point Joan of Arc’s achievement is, as de Gournay, even more significant because France is a “great kingdom,” while the Ancient Hebrews were not so great. The piety that De Gournay praises is ultimately instrumental in the service of political greatness. Her magnanimous women are political animals.
It is not obvious that Van Schurman also has such a political conception of ‘true magnanimity.’ Because on the whole she seems satisfied to argue her case for equality of learning while accepting a rather limited domestic role for women. But, she is explicit that women are capable of “every virtue” (85), and so this includes martial and political virtues (and she appeals to Seneca to argue that virtue “does not discriminate between different social classes or between the sexes” (86)). And, in fact, she introduces the claim about magnanimity quoted at the top of this post just after insisting that she is talking about knowledge of “prudence” and (again echoing Seneca) the great exemplars of virtue (88). In fact, at the start of her argument, Van Schurman had insisted that women should also be taught “”theoretical knowledge…especially of the very noble discipline of politics.” (82) So, Van Schurman seems in agreement with De Gournay that women cannot just play a magnanimous political role, but can also rule.
There is, however, a non-trivial difference between De Gournay and Van Schurman. De Gournay’s inclines toward the view that humans are by “nature” roughly equal and that the distribution of talents is roughly equal within the sexes. She avoids “extremes.” (54) It follows that for her that magnanimity is equally distributed among men and women.
Sometimes Van Schurman grants the premise that “woman’s natural ability is less” than that of men along a whole range of dimensions (91; see also 84). She uses this worst-case scenario as an added argument for not preventing women access to education (which can ameliorate natural difference and, thus, do more good for women than men.) But Van Schurman also makes clear that she thinks that the distribution of talents among women is rather wide (80).
So, it is compatible with Van Schurman's view that on average women are naturally less talented for the courage required military and political life, while it also being true, in fact, that on average there are going to be more naturally magnanimous women than men. Given that the study of letters teaches “prudence,” we should not be surprised, I suppose, that she approvingly appeals to "divine" Plato’s Laws (89)--a book that teaches that the wise ought to rule (875c), but that often they have to accommodate themselves to second, or even third-best options due to bad circumstances.
*De Gournay is explicit that “there are very many of them.” (70) One might object that De Gournay does not explicitly say that either Judith or Joan of Arc is magnanimous, but in context De Gournay explicity contrast (by way of contrariness) the “heart” of Judith “among so many pusillanimous men.”