Olympe de Gouges (1745-1793)
“Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum”
It would be quite hard to find a woman who was both as savvy and intelligent as the French writer and activist Olympe De Gouges, who gave women a voice during the French Revolution (1789-1798) until her death on the guillotine in 1793. She understood the political and social climate she lived in well and used her knowledge to propel both herself and her unconventional ideas at the time on the role of women in society. Her cornerstone piece is the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne), published in 1791.
De Gouges was born in 1748 in southern France as the daughter of Anne Olympe Mouisset Gouze and Pierre Gouze, a butcher, Despite their humble circumstances her mother was able to pay for her to have some school education, which would eventually lead to her strengths in writing. At the age of sixteen, she was married to a much older man. The couple had a son, but marriage was extremely unhappy. She writes about her husband in a semi-autobiographical novel stating that she was “married to a man I did not love and who was neither rich nor well-born. I was sacrificed for no reason that could make up for the repugnance I felt for this man.” Her husband died about a year after marriage. She changed her name to Olympe de Gouges and moved to Paris. After her short marriage she never remarried.
One aspect that makes Olympe de Gouges especially interesting is the persona she created for herself, which is almost as interesting as her writing itself. Despite what she made many contemporaries believe at the time, she was not actually the illegitimate offspring of a local noble. But used this myth of her novel birth as a reason for her talent as a writer, since that aristocrats had a reputation for a talent in writing. It was this constant performance of her identity that helped advance her and established her social standing in French society.
One specific way that de Gouges was able to achieve and maintain her social standing was by understanding and exploiting the current social and political climate that existed in France and by taking advantage of the situations that she found herself in. One example of this can be seen at the onset of the French Revolution. The political situation in France was already very tense and before the revolution even began, she already addressed some of its later issues. In 1788 she published the pamphlet Reflections on blacks and the play l’Esclavage des Noirs on the slave trade. Both publications made her, alongside the French philosopher Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), one of France’s earliest public opponents of slavery.
The start of the French Revolution in July 1789, she kicked her work into overdrive and she began to write for more diverse causes. At the beginning she was an ardent supporter of the revolution and its ideas, but quickly she realized that the revolutionary solgan égalité (equal rights) was still limited to men and not extended to women as well. Her discontent only rose after the publication of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 (Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen de 1789) set by France’s National Constituent Assembly in August 1789. The Declaration Influenced by the enlightened idea of universal “natural rights,” valid at all times and in every place, pertaining to human nature itself. Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen obecame the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by the law.
This document outlined a series of human rights that seemed to be universal for all. The problem was that the document’s scope was limited to man, and it did not recognize any rights for women. De Gouges, rightfully so, responded in 1791 with the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne). The structure of this text reflects the original declaration, in fact, some articles are kept almost identical to the original. De Gouge’s declaration adds upon the original by modifying and updating each article in a way that includes women. De Gouges tried to defend the rights of women with her writing, but did not shy away from criticism of female. Her general aim was to unite women to defend their special interests and work together regardless of their social ranking to fight for the common interest.
As the French Revolution radicalized 1792/93, de Gouges intensified her writing, and became much more critical. This culminated in her writing Les trois urnes (The Three Urns) in 1793. This text with its sharp criticism of the regime of the radical Jacobines, made her for them to “an enemy of the state.” She was imprisoned. In court, she was denied the right to an attorney, since her judge believed that, because of her writing, she was capable of representing herself without one. Because of these odds stacked against her, she was ultimately sentenced to death by guillotine on November 3, 1793. A report of her death at the time said:
Olympe de Gouges, born with an exalted imagination, mistook her delirium for an inspiration of nature. She wanted to be a man of state. She took up the projects of the perfidious people who want to divide France. It seems the law has punished this conspirator for having forgotten the virtues that belong to her sex.
Despite dying young, de Gouge’s legacy lives on to this day.
Nikhil Komirisetti, Computer Science Major, Statistics and Neuroscience Minor, Class of 2020
Literature and Websites
- Levy, Darline Gay and Harriet B. Applewhite. “A Political Revolution for Women? The Case of Paris,” in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. Renate Bridenthal, Susan Mosher Stuard, Merry E. Wiesner, 265-292. Third edn. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
- “Olympe de Gouges, The Declaration of the Rights of Woman, 1792,” in Women in Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1798, ed. Darline Gay Leyy, Harriet Branson Applewhite and Mary Duham Johnson, pp. 87-96. Urbana Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1980.
- Scott, Joan Wallach. “French Feminists and the Rights of ‘Man’: Olympe de Gouges’s Declarations.” History Workshop, no. 28 (1989): 1-21.
- Vanpée, Janie. “Performing Justice: The Trials of Olympe de Gouges”. Theatre Journal. 51, no. 11 (1999): 47–65.