Female Badasses in History:Marie Gouze better known as Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793)
Olympe de Gouges was a French playwright, revolutionary, and abolitionist. She started becoming politically involved as a writer against slavery and is most well-known for writing the Declaration of the rights of women and the female citizen in response to the French Revolution’s Declaration of the right of man and the citizen, in which she challenged male dominance in the revolutionary movement and the focus of the French revolutionary struggle on men and not women.
Olympe de Gouges was born in 1748 in southwestern France in a petit-bourgeoisie family with her father being a butcher. She originally believed she was the illegitimate child of a French aristocrat but he rejected her story, which might have been a decisive factor in her later defense of the rights of illegitimate children. In 1765 at age seventeen Olympe was married against her will. She later wrote about her marrige that she was married to a man she found repugnant and felt hopelessly trapped. Her husband, however, died a year later and Olypme took the chance to move to Paris with her son where she also took her pen name. During her time in Paris she must have studied reading and writing because analphabetism was common among French women at the time and in her home the language was Occidane (a minority language in France) rather then the French of the north. She also spent her time in literary salons and cohabitating with several men of the Parisian literary scene. It is assumed that was how she got involved in politics and started writing text inspired by the Enlightenment. She wrote her first play, Zamorze and Mirza, in 1784 but it was not performed until 1789. It was a story about two survivors of a shipwreck falling in love, one of them being a black slave and had a strong anti-slavery message. She also started writing political texts, among them many that condemned slavery, called for a new divorce law allowing women to get divorced, proclaimed the right of women to have sexual relations outside of marriage, were concerned with a better treatment of illegitimate children and with human rights in general.
Olympe had many condemn her, mainly for being a woman that dared getting involved in politics and writing. Even some of her later colleges in the revolutionary movement were appalled by a woman “daring” to be involved in matters that “only concerned men”.
When the revolution in 1789 broke out Olympe was in full support of it. However, soon it became clear to her that men dominated the revolutionary movement and in formulating the rights of men, they didn’t include women. In reaction, she and several other female authors and female proponents of the Enlightenment founded the Society of the Friends of the Truth (which is an awesome name!) in 1791, a social club dedicated to the rights and inclusion of women. It is this social club where she made one of her most famous statements: “A woman has the right to mount the scaffold She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker’s platform.” In this context scaffold meaning the Guillotine. Olympe was opposed to the execution of the members of the Frnech aristocracy.
When in the same year the Declaration of the Rights of men and the citizen became part of the new French constitution, Olympe in protest wrote the Declaration of the Rights of women and the female citizen because the new constitution still excluded women from political rights. The first article of her declaration states: “The woman is born free and equal to men in all rights and matters concerned.” A lot of the text is similar to the Declaration of the Rights of men but now includes women in the text. Historiography is still not clear how much of an impact her text had. Until 1971 it was not much dealt with in writings about the French Revolution but this is most likely related to the fact that most male historians chose to ignore her text rather than research its impact.
During the revolution Olympe was associated with the Girondins. When the Jacobins began erecting their rule of terror under Robespierre they arrested her for this association but also for her relentless critique of male dominance after the revolution. She was not allowed to have a lawyer present during her trial and tried to defend herself but to no avail. She was beheaded on the Place de la Concorde on November 3, 1793.
Olympe de Gouges stands out as an outspoken proponent of the Enlightenment who was not afraid to propagate and fight for what was right in her opinion. Her Declaration of the Rights of women and the female citizen was an important document of protest against the exclusion of women from the newly introduced human and political rights. In its text it doesn’t aim at establishing any “special” rights for women but rather at the inclusion and the granting of the same rights and duties men were awarded by the revolution. Also, in her other texts her early feminism and dedication to the rights of all humans – male, female, black, white, legitimate or illegitimate – stands out. The fact that she has been (deliberately) forgotten by historiography until almost 200 years after her death should stand not only as a reminder but as an call for an obligation to historians and society in general to remember such outstanding women such as her.