Biography of Olympe de Gouges, French Women's Rights Activist

Olympe de Gouges

Heritage Images / Contributor / Getty Images

 

Olympe de Gouges (born Marie Gouze; May 7, 1748–November 3, 1793) was a French writer and activist who promoted women's rights and the abolition of slavery. Her most famous work was the "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen," the publication of which resulted in Gouges being tried and convicted of treason. She was executed in 1783 during the Reign of Terror.

Fast Facts: Olympe de Gouges

  • Known For: Gouges was a French activist who fought for women's rights; she wrote the "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen"
  • Also Known As: Marie Gouze
  • Born: May 7, 1748 in Montauban, France
  • Died: November 3, 1793 in Paris, France
  • Published Works: Letter to the People, or Project for a Patriotic Fund (1788), Patriotic Remarks (1789), Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791)
  • Spouse: Louis Aubry (m. 1765-1766)
  • Children: Pierre Aubry de Gouges
  • Notable Quote: "Woman is born free and lives equal to man in her rights. Social distinctions can be based only on the common utility."

Early Life

Olympe de Gouges was born on May 7, 1748, in southwestern France. At the age of 16, she was married against her wishes to a man named Louis Aubry, who died a year later. De Gouges moved to Paris in 1770, where she started a theater company and became involved in the growing abolitionist movement.

Plays

After joining the theater community in Paris, Gouges began writing her own plays, many of which dealt explicitly with issues such as slavery, male-female relations, children's rights, and unemployment. Gouges was critical of French colonialism and used her work to draw attention to social ills. Her work, however, was often met with hostile criticism and ridicule from the male-dominated literary establishment. Some critics even questioned whether she was the true author of the works to which she'd signed her name.

Activism

From 1789—beginning with the French Revolution and the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen"—until 1944, French women were not allowed to vote, meaning they did not have the full rights of citizenship. This was the case even though women were active in the French Revolution, and many assumed that such rights were theirs by virtue of their participation in that historic liberation struggle.

Gouges, a playwright of some note 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 after the 1789 "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" by the National Assembly, Gouges' declaration echoed the same language and extended it to women. As many feminists have done since then, Gouges both asserted woman's capability to reason and make moral decisions and pointed to the feminine virtues of emotion and feeling. A woman was not simply the same as a man; she was his equal partner.

The French version of the titles of the two declarations makes this mirroring a bit clearer. In French, 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, 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 most controversial ideas in 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 that 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, Gouges' proposal implied, were also part of the reproduction of society, and not just political, rational citizens. If men were seen sharing the reproduction role, perhaps women should be members of the political and public sphere of society.

Death

For refusing to be silent on the rights of women―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 and was beheaded.

A contemporary report of her death 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 violating the boundaries set for women.

Legacy

Gouges' ideas continued to influence women in France and abroad after her death. Her essay "Declaration of the Rights of Woman" was reprinted by like-minded radicals, inspiring Mary Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Woman" in 1792. Americans were inspired by Gouges as well; during the 1848 Women's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, activists produced the "Declaration of Sentiments," an expression of female empowerment that borrowed from Gouges' style.

Sources

  • Duby, Georges, et al. "Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War." Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • Roessler, Shirley Elson. "Out of the Shadows: Women and Politics in the French Revolution, 1789-95." Peter Lang, 2009.
  • Scott, Joan Wallach. "Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man." Harvard University Press, 2004.