Remembering Olympe de Gouges, France’s First Revolutionary Feminist

Olympe de Gouges

Despite holding a significant place in the annals of French revolutionary history, Olympe de Gouges is hardly a household name. Many will easily recognize figures such as Lafayette, the Marquis de Condorcet, and the redoubtable Robespierre– names that appear over and over in popular accounts of the Revolution of 1789 and its aftermath.

What they often don’t know is that one brave, provocative woman responded to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen with a proto-feminist manifesto– one that castigated the Revolution’s glaring omission of women from its proposed expansion of human rights.

Keep reading to learn who Olympe de Gouges was, how she contributed to the advancement of human (and women’s) rights in France and worldwide– and how her life came to a brutal and needless end at the hands of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror.

From Playwright & Abolitionist to Revolutionary Pamphleteer

A portrait of Olympe de Gouges (née Marie Gouze) holding a book, circa 1793, artist unknown. Public domain
A portrait of Olympe de Gouges (née Marie Gouze) holding a book, circa 1793, artist unknown. Public domain

Born Marie Gouze in the southern French town of Montauban in 1748, the future Olympe de Gouges came from a comfortable bourgeois family and received a formal education (which was relatively rare for women at the time).

After being forced to marry a caterer named Louis Aubry at 16 and becoming a widow only a year later, Gouze moved to Paris in 1770 with her young son, taking up residence with her sister in the capital.

The trauma of being made to marry against her will turned her firmly against the institution. She remained (formally) unattached through the rest of her life, and would later call marriage “le tombeau de la confiance et de l’amour” (the tomb of trust and love).

Once in Paris, De Gouges quickly became involved with the intellectual salons and literary circles that were thriving in the two decades before the Revolution of 1789. But according to a post at the Gallica Blog (run by the National Library of France), rumors spread that she was merely frequenting the salons as a “courtesan” (read: prostitute). Clearly, her refusal to remain disengaged from intellectual activities (as women were expected to do) made her the target of misogyny and spite.

While she is best known for her (later) treatises on women’s rights to full citizenship and civil liberties, the young De Gouges (who changed her name from Marie Gouze when she first became an author) first made her mark as a prolific playwright.

She initially gained wide attention for a satirical play that excoriated the institution of slavery,  L’Esclavage des noirs ou l’heureux naufrage (The Enslavement of Black (People), or the Fortunate Shipwreck). It was written in 1784, but only performed in the years that followed.

The young playwright quickly became the target of ire, and even death threats from slaveholders, for her abolitionist activities and writings.

{Related: These Places in Paris Aren’t Generally Associated With African-American History. They Should Be.}

In other writings, De Gouges became an advocate for the expansion of civil liberties and human rights more generally, penning plays, essays and pamphlets on everything from divorce to the rights of children and the evils of colonialism.

In key works such as 1788’s Les Remarques patriotiques (Patriotic Remarks), De Gouges advocated for the creation of a broad taxation system to address economic inequalities and wrote in favor of France transforming into a constitutional monarchy. She was very much a participant, then, in the debates that were fomenting in Paris and elsewhere in the years running up to 1789 and the nation’s first revolution.

{Related: France’s Bastille Day Once Celebrated Constitutional Monarchy—& Other Weird Facts}

Of course, as the boundary-breaking thinker gained in prominence and renown, she was increasingly ridiculed by the (predominantly male) intelligentsia in France. Many even questioned whether she was the true author of the writings to which she attached her name. Nevertheless, she persisted…

1791: De Gouges Publishes The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen

Olympe de Gouges delivering her Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne to Queen Marie-Antoinette.  (Print, Desrais, Paris, 1790 (BNF)
De Gouges delivering her Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne to Queen Marie-Antoinette.  (Print, Desrais, Paris, 1790 (BNF)

By 1791, the French Revolution was well underway– a development De Gouges initially welcomed.

But she found deep flaws in 1789’s Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, (Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen), France’s first major blueprint for a democratic bill of rights. It did not include women among the persons who would be accorded expanded rights and citizenship in a nascent Republic. In fact, it hardly considered women people at all– they were simply omitted from its new concept of the citizen.

Having joined a club called the Society of the Friends of Truth in 1791, De Gouges associated with other women who were in favor of extending rights to women, including Sophie de Condorcet, married to the Marquis de Condorcet, a mathematician, philosopher, and revolutionary.

(Not incidentally, in 1790 Condorcet himself published a remarkably progressive essay in favor of emancipating and according citizenship to women. He also unsuccessfully argued for women to be granted the latter in 1789).

A 1789 illustration commemorating the publication of the Declaration of the Rights of Man/Musée Carnavalet

In September 1791, De Gouges published a fiery and bold response to the Declaration of 1789, entitled Déclaration des droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne (Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen).

Composed in a direct, satirical and confrontational style, De Gouge’s pamphlet cannily echoed the language of the original document. It rewrote the Declaration’s 17 Articles point by point, in a bid to unearth and critique the myriad injustices faced by women– and argue that they wholly merited expanded rights and citizenship.

After directly addressing Marie Antoinette (whom she personally delivered the pamphlet to following its publication), then male readers in opening statements, De Gouges declares the following:

“Mothers, daughters, sisters, representatives of the Nation, all demand to be constituted into a national assembly. Given that ignorance, disregard or the disdain of the rights of woman are the only causes of public misfortune and the corruption of governments [they] have decided to make known in a solemn declaration the natural, inalienable and sacred rights of woman; this declaration, constantly in the thoughts of all members of society, will ceaselessly remind them of their rights and responsibilities, allowing the political acts of women, and those of men, to be compared in all respects to the aims of political institutions, which will become increasingly respected, so that the demands of female citizens, henceforth based on simple and incontestable principles, will always seek to maintain the constitution, good morals and the happiness of all.

Article I immediately proclaims that women are the equals of men. But the most famous statement from the pamphlet is probably this one:

“A woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker’s platform.”

In other words, De Gouges was arguing, if women can be equally tried for crimes and executed, they can also be given equal treatment in public and civic life.

In Article IV, the author held that “the only limit to the exercise of the natural rights of woman is the perpetual tyranny that man opposes to it”, concluding that “these limits must be reformed by the laws of nature and reason”.

Avant-garde des femmes allant à Versaille” Avant-Garde women marching to Versailles  [sic], print, Paris, 1789

In doing so, she challenged and inversed the rhetoric of nature that had often been used as an excuse to keep women subordinated to men and in roles deemed “feminine”– on the grounds that it would be counter to nature for women to break out of such subordination.

One article argued that women should be allowed to exercise any all professions exercised by men. Another advanced then-controversial ideas around women’s rights to claim and protect children when the father was unknown (suggesting sexual liberation for women).

Taken as a whole, De Gouges’ Déclaration was remarkably progressive, forthright, and sophisticated in the way it referenced and retooled existing philosophical ideas on rights, not to mention turn sexist and misogynistic rhetoric about “Nature” and femininity on its head.

In the Postscript, she reworked many of the ideas advanced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Social Contract to persuade readers that women are just as deserving of natural rights– and citizenship– as men. She exhorts fellow women to follow her lead: “Woman, wake up; the tocsin of reason is resounding throughout the universe: acknowledge your rights.”

Following the publication of her pamphlet, De Gouges intensified her association with the revolutionary faction known as the Girondins, frequenting a salon led by Manon Roland.

The Girondins were opposed to what they saw as the violent radicalism of the rival Jacobin faction, and to the arrest and prosecution of King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and their children. They believed, in short, that a successful revolution need not involve violence and executions, and a minority remained open to the possibility of a constitutional monarchy.

{Related: Simone de Beauvoir’s Writings on Freedom Offer Key Insights Into Her Work}

1793: De Gouges is Arrested and Sent to the Guillotine

Olympe de Gouges is sentenced to the guillotine for revolutionary writings, 1793
De Gouges mounts the guillotine scaffold prior to her execution in 1793/Public domain

By 1793, De Gouges’s tracts and revolutionary associations were well-known. As a member of the Girondins, she became increasingly critical of the Jacobin faction led by Robespierre and Marat. They were architects of the Revolutionary Reign of Terror that swept France from 1793 to 1794– claiming thousands of lives at the guillotine installed on the Place de la Concorde.

In the early 1790s, De Gouges published tracts and plays that argued in favor of potentially creating an enduring constitutional monarchy in France. She additionally spoke out against execution of King Louis XVI in January 1793, and the imprisonment of Queen Marie Antoinette and her children. Instead of being executed, she held, they should instead be exiled.

These (allegedly pro-royalist) positions, even more than her writings on women’s rights to citizenship and civil liberties, got her on the murderous radar of Robespierre and Marat.

{Related: Paris City Hall’s Square Was Once a Gruesome Execution Site}

She was arrested by revolutionary guards in July 1793 and imprisoned. Nevertheless, she managed to release several tracts condemning The Terror.

On November 2nd, she was called before a Paris tribunal. The next day, on November 3rd, she was sentenced to death and executed by guillotine– only days before her Girondin friend and associate Manon Roland met the same fate, and less than a month after Marie Antoinette was sent to the guillotine.

De Gouges’s Legacy, Then and Now

Mary Wollestonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,

While she lost her life to revolutionary zeal (and misogyny), De Gouges spurred and inspired numerous other thinkers of her time. Her legacy also carries through to current fights for gender equality being waged around the world.

She was one of the first thinkers to point out– in distinctly avant-garde ways– the arbitrariness and cruelty of rigid gender roles, well before Simone de Beauvoir declared “On ne nait pas femme; on le devient” (“One isn’t born woman– one becomes it”) in The Second Sex (1949).

{Related: 10 Notable French Quotes, Followed by a Quiz}

In the revolutionary Europe of the 1790s, De Gouges also inspired women such as British proto-feminist (and mother of Mary Shelley) Mary Wollestonecraft to publish her Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

On the other side of the Atlantic,  meanwhile, De Gouge’s Declaration of the Rights of Woman reportedly influenced the Declaration of Sentiments, co-authored by American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton with other activists and presented at the pivotal Seneca Falls convention in 1848.

{Related: 8 American Women to Moved to Paris & Made History}

And while De Gouges wasn’t always recognized as a key revolutionary figure in France, that has been changing in recent years. You can notably visit De Gouge’s former Parisian residence at  20 de la rue Servandoni, in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district. Today, a plaque graces the facade of the building– a long-overdue tribute to the woman and her work.

{The American Revolution in Paris: Key Sites to See}

And in 2004, a new square dedicated to her memory was inaugurated in Paris: the Place Olympe de Gouges, in the 3rd arrondissement.

More on De Gouges, Her Writings and Her Legacy

Olympe de Gouges /graphic at BNF/Gallica

Wish to further explore the writings, ideas, and legacy of this extraordinary French woman and Parisian? The Bibliothèque Nationale de France (National Library of France) has made a huge variety of documents and manuscripts by and about De Gouges available online for free.

Most of the materials are in French, but there are numerous illustrations and historic prints in the collection relating to De Gouges and the French Revolution of 1789.

For English-language insight into the revolutionary and her times, Sophie Mousset’s biography of De Gouges, Women’s Rights and the French Revolution, is a good place to start (and the first full biography to appear in English). Historian Joan Wallach Scott’s earlier book, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (1997), offers a fascinating look at the politics and paradoxes of early French feminist writings.

Olympe de Gouges, BD de Catel et Bocquet
An illustration from the graphic novel Olympe de Gouges by Catel et Bocquet (2012)

Finally, for those who enjoy graphic novels and might be interested in working on their French, a 2012 release from the illustrators Catel & Bocquet brings the revolutionary feminist’s legacy into fresh perspective– and a new medium.

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