Olympe de Gouges and the Rights of Woman

Women's Rights in the French Revolution

Liberty Leading the People, Eugène Delacroix, 1830, Louvre, Paris
Liberty Leading the People, Eugène Delacroix, 1830, Louvre, Paris. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Beginning with the French Revolution and the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" in 1789, until 1944, French citizenship was limited to males -- even though women were active in the French Revolution, and many assumed that citizenship was theirs by right of their active participation in that historic liberation battle.

Olympe de Gouges, a playwright of some note in France at the time of the Revolution, spoke for not only herself but many of the women of France, when in 1791 she wrote and published the "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen." Modeled on the 1789 "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" by the National Assembly, de Gouges' Declaration echoed the same language and extended it to women, as well.

As many feminists have done since, de Gouges both asserted woman's capability to reason and make moral decisions, and pointed to the feminine virtues of emotion and feeling. Woman was not simply the same as man, but she was his equal partner.

The French version of the titles of the two declarations makes this mirroring a bit clearer. In French, de Gouges' manifesto was the "Déclaration des Droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne" -- not just Woman contrasted with Man, but Citoyenne contrasted with Citoyen.

Unfortunately, de Gouges assumed too much. She assumed she had the right to even act as a member of the public and to assert the rights of women by authoring such a declaration. She violated boundaries that most of the revolutionary leaders wanted to preserve.

Among the challenges in de Gouges' Declaration was the assertion that women, as citizens, had the right to free speech, and therefore had the right to reveal the identity of the fathers of their children -- a right which women of the time were not assumed to have.

She assumed a right of children born out of legitimate marriage to full equality to those born in marriage: this called into question the assumption that only men had the freedom to satisfy their sexual desire outside of marriage, and that such freedom on the part of men could be exercised without fear of corresponding responsibility.

It also called into question the assumption that only women were agents of reproduction -- men, too, de Gouges' proposal implied, were part of the reproduction of society, and not just political, rational citizens. If men were seen sharing the reproduction role, then perhaps, women should be members of the political and public side of society.

For asserting this equality, and repeating the assertion publicly -- for refusing to be silent on the Rights of Woman -- and for associating with the wrong side, the Girondists, and criticizing the Jacobins, as the Revolution became embroiled in new conflicts -- Olympe de Gouges was arrested in July 1793, four years after the Revolution began. She was sent to the guillotine in November of that year.

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.

In the midst of a Revolution to extend rights to more men, Olympe de Gouges had the audacity to argue that women, too, should benefit.

Her contemporaries were clear that her punishment was, in part, for forgetting her proper place and proper role as a woman.

In her initial manifesto, Article X included the statement that "Woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must have equally the right to mount the tribune."  She was accorded the first equality, but not the second.

Recommended reading

For more information on Olympe de Gouges and early feminist sentiment in France, I recommend the following books:

  • Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man.  Joan Wallach Scott. Hardcover (also in paperback); 1996. Excellent treatment of Olympe de Gouges in the French Revolution, Jeanne Deroin in the Revolution of 1848, Hubertine Auclert and the Third Republic, Madeleine Pelletier in the early 20th century, and women in France after winning the vote in 1944.
  • A History of Women Vol 4: Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War. Genevieve Fraisse and Michelle Perrot, editors. This translation of an excellent European women's history begins with the French Revolution inaugurating the modern period.
  • Out of the Shadows: Women and Politics in the French Revolution 1789-95. Shirley Elson Roessler. A treatment of many of the women who were connected with the French Revolution.