Tag Archives: Anna Waser

What about the Women?

Two Samaritan coins from the collection of Jacob de Wilde, depicted by Maria de Wilde in: Adriaan Reland, Dissertatio altera de Inscriptione Nummorum quorundam Samaritanorum, Utrecht: Thomas Appels 1704.

Friday n° 26, April 5th, 2019

I have touched upon many topics in this blog so far, but gender has not been one of them yet. Not because gender does not play a role in here but because it is – alas – very hard to tackle which role precisely given the circumstances of my project.

How to find women?

First of all, it suffers from the near-universal male bias in intellectual history, history of knowledge, and history of science. Although there have been many attempts to break this male gaze and to also focus on the roles of women in academia for the past centuries, these studies are still isolated in so far as they highlight particular individuals – and because none of these plays into the circles of my protagonists, as far as I can see at the moment, I am a bit lost there. All I can do is try to check my data for the more general patterns of including women and their contributions into academic information circulation. But as the history of knowledge and scholarship in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, which is where most of my sources and data come from, most of the time just silently passed over female contributions of all kinds, I only very rarely am able to substantiate the scattered findings in my sources with more specific information which would point me to further lanes of inquiry.

How to deal with those women found?

Second, there are only scattered findings: my protagonists themselves have left only few traces of their female connections, most of them pertaining to their family life. This was not only their fault. Much of it is due to the ways in which the source materials available today were produced, traded, and ultimately kept, which were quite unconducive to transmit materials connected to women. The surviving letters of all of my protagonists were not directly filed into institutional archives at their death – which is where they are kept today -, but rather passed on privately by inheritance and sale before being donated to or bought by the institutions in possession of them now. While inheritance processes would be favourable to conserving materials connected to women for family reasons, generally spoken they are less favourable to preserve materials connected to women outside of domestic affairs. One might well keep letters and documents dealing with one’s female ancestors or relations, but might accord less value to such materials dealing with female artists, or perhaps even with women engaging in scholarly pursuits. The selections involved in selling the papers of a dead scholar would, on the other hand, be less favourable to materials ‘only’ connected to his (as my protagonists are all male) domestic affairs and relations, as they were for long, and sadly still are sometimes today, considered of minor if any importance to scholarly matters. Autograph collectors would prize letters from famous scholars to other famous scholars but in general be less interested in those materials dealing with less prominent figures, which in their eyes normally applied to women. In both processes, inheritance and sale, some source materials which I would really like to have at hand to provide me with information about the gender dimension in my protagonist’s academic world are likely to have been deselected from being passed on, and as both processes happened in the transmission of these materials, sometimes more than once, this has geared the sources available into a perspective which is hard to overcome.

With official documents it is quite the same; the female contacts figure in these most prominently in domestic matters (contexts such as birth, death, marriage, inheritance) if they are in them at all. And not all documents of such interest are still available.

From 1.838 to 74

But all these restrictions and biased perspectives aside, what do I have got concerning women so far? If I take a look at my database, the figures are not very encouraging: Of 1838 persons in there (as of today), only 74 are female, or a meagre 4 %. Of these 12 modern-day female scientists have to be deducted, leaving me with 62 women mentioned in my sources.

From 74 to 30

If I now also deduce all those who only entered as historical figures, that is, wifes, mothers or sisters of scholars from generations preceding my protagonists, I am left with 30 women for which I recorded anything between 1650 and 1750. Compared to 1128 men for which I have anything recorded for that period, the figure dwindles down to 2.6 %.

This imbalance is of course to be lamented from a point of view concentrating on historical justice. It is quite clear that these numbers are likely not to be accurate in terms of intellectual contributions. Those case studies that we have indicate that women could be involved in academic intellectual production in various roles, at almost each stage of the process, and that their contributions are not to be seen as negligible. There surely is a lot of unacknowledged female labour that went into the publications and discussions featuring my protagonists. But my interest in this particular case of research is not so much in discovering or restoring such female contributions, although this would be a fascinating topic in itself. As I am trying to make sense of processes of structural forgetting here, I take these heavily gender-biased data as a fact in its own sense, and a noteworthy one at that.

Because I have not consciously tried to avoid women in my research, the reason that their presence in the database is so low is not due to my bias but to the source material’s bias. The co-citation approach I am pursuing means that I collect references to persons who are not my protagonists based on three criteria:

  1. these persons are referred to on the same page as one of my protagonists and/or one of his publications
  2. these persons have contributed to a publication cited on the same page as one of my protagonists and/or one of his publications
  3. these persons are necessary to construct the relationships between other persons in the database.

From 30 to 3

The bias in the database now originates from the fact that women are, throughout my sources, almost completely blended out from categories 1) and 2). This results in most women who are in database being entered by way of category 3), that is, they are needed – as wifes, mothers, or sisters – to complete family relations between persons from categories 1) and 2). And while I am convinced that such relations played a vital role in the social formation of early modern academia, it is very difficult to reconstruct them without recourse to primal source material (if it exists), as secondary literature has much too often been silent about kinship ties of academics, too. And if they are acknowledged, this is seldom done in the form of giving concrete references to individual women, such as names, birth and death dates and other information which would come in handy for my purposes, but most often in the form of “X, who was married to the daughter of Y, …”.

So if I now again deduce all women which only are referenced in my database via kinship ties from the 30 women left for the century between 1650 and 1750, I am down to three.

From 3 to 2

The three women who are actually being co-cited with my protagonists in my sources upon closer inspection narrow down to two, because one is the formidable and inescapable Madame Dacier (Anne Dacier, née Le Fèvre, 1654-1720). This is not to belittle her considerable achievements but shall only be taken to mean that she was part and parcel of the discourse about the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, and it was in that context that she was co-cited together with Thomas Gale and 53 other scholars in the October 1734 issue of the Journal des Savants (see here).[1] This rather heavy case of name-dropping does not serve to indicate any deeper connection between Dacier and Gale but rather testifies to both being part of the same epistemic community, in this case of the Anciens party. As this was a rather large community, shared membership only points to some shared assumptions and thus to a purely topical relation.

With Anne Dacier thus deducted, only two women remain who are mentioned in a closer kind of connection to one of my protagonists. These two ladies are Maria de Wilde (1682-1729) from Amsterdam and Anna Waser (1678-1714) from Zürich. Both are not only mentioned in connection to the same of my protagonists, Adriaan Reland (who seems to become kind of inevitable within this project, too), but also by the same source: The June 1705 issue of the Acta Eruditorum (see here). The references were part of the review of Reland’s second treatise on the coins of the ancient Samaritans, the Dissertatio altera de Nummorum quorundam Samaritanorum of 1704 (see here for the whole review).[2] In fact, they were both mentioned together in the closing lines of the review:

“That those [coins] of Reland’s the most excellent maiden, Maria de Wilde, from her father’s[3] collection most elegantly depicted, as Anna Waser, great-great-grandchild of Caspar Waser[4], this posthumously most laudable man, those of Ott;[5] therefore our Reland has finished his little work with two poems in praise of de Wilde’s very excellent artworks, and what more could be remembered in Ott’s letter, will be set aside for another time and leisure.”

Acta Eruditorum 34, 06/1705, pp. 284-285.
Two Samaritan coins from the collection of Johann Rudolf Waser depicted by Anna Waser, in: Adriaan Reland, Dissertatio altera de Inscriptione Nummorum quorundam Samaritanorum, Utrecht: Thomas Appels 1704.

A familiar pattern…

The pattern visible here is a familiar one. Both “the most excellent maiden” Maria de Wilde and her obviously as praiseworthy fellow female Anna Waser contributed the engravings for Reland’s dissertation and Ott’s reply to it. Both were daughters of well-connected men in their respective communities: Jacob de Wilde, a collector of arts and antiquities of international renown, and Johann Rudolf Waser, city official and chief warden of Zürich’s Grossmünsterstift. Both excelled in painting and drawing and were given a good education in these crafts, and through their father’s contacts were introduced to scholars who then utilized their services for making their arguments. Although both of them were close contemporaries of Reland – Anna Waser was two years younger, and Maria de Wilde six years – they served as illustrators at a time when Reland had already advanced to a professorial post in Utrecht. This compares well to the biographies of other scholarly active women of the time, the most prominent example surely being Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). Unlike Merian, Maria de Wilde ceased publishing with her marriage in 1710; while Anna Waser never married and advanced up to the post of court paintress to the count of Solms-Braunfels for three years, 1700-1702, before returning to Zürich where she quit painting around 1708 for unclear reasons.

…and an all-too familiar conclusion

Regardless of their achievements, apart from one scattered reference I have been able to find so far their activities were simply glossed over by contemporary academic publications which were written by men for men. A prime factor for being removed from circulation and thus becoming structurally forgotten obviously was gender. If you were a woman, your chances to be forgotten very soon were 25 times higher than that of a random male scholar of your age bracket.


[1] Journal des Savants 70, 10/1734, p. 699.

[2] Anon., Review of: Adriaan Reland, Dissertatio altera de Inscriptione Nummorum quorundam Samaritanorum, Utrecht: Thomas Appels 1704, in: Acta Eruditorum 34, 06/1705, pp. 279-285.

[3] Jacob de Wilde, 1645-1725.

[4] Caspar Waser, 1565-1625.

[5] Johann Baptist Ott, 1661-1744.