French author and activist Marie Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793) achieved modest success as a play wright in the 18th century, but she became best known for her political writing and support of the French Revolution. Considered a feminist pioneer, de Gouges was an advocate of women's rights. Her most famous work was The Declaration of the Rights of Woman, (1791). Even in revolutionary France, feminist ideas were considered radical. In 1793, she was executed for crimes against the government.
Marie-Olympe de Gouges was born Marie Gouzes in Montauban, in southern France, on December 31, 1748. The facts about her true parentage are somewhat vague, and de Gouges herself contributed to the confusion by encouraging rumors about her illegitimacy.
It is commonly believed that she was born and raised in a modest family, the daughter of Pierre Gouze, a butcher, and Anne Olympe Moisset, a maidservant. However, it was rumored that de Gouges's mother, who reportedly was a beautiful women and unhappy in her marriage, had an affair with a person of high social rank, Marquis Lefranc de Pompignan. The marquis, many claimed, was de Gouge's real father. Another circulated rumor suggested that de Gouges was the illegitimate daughter of King Louis XV. When asked about her true parentage, de Gouges would only answer somewhat ambiguously. Fueling the speculation about de Gouge's illegitimate birth was the fact the Pierre Gouze's name did not appear on any significant documents relating to his daughter's paternity. However, it is now generally believed today that Gouze was indeed her real father. Whatever the true facts about her parentage, she actually lived with Gouze, who died when she was two years old. During her youth, de Gouges already demonstrated the kind of rebelliousness that would come into play in her adult life.
In 1765, when she was 17, de Gouges married a French officer, Louis Aubrey. Two years later, they had a son. Aubrey was much older than de Gouges and he died three years into the marriage. Following his death, and displaying her characteristic rebelliousness, de Gouges refused to accept her position as a widowed mother or the designation of "Widowed Aubrey," a personal stance that was counter to the social convention. Even more, she vowed never to remarry.
Moved to Paris
Abandoning her son, de Gouges went to Paris in 1770 to seek fame as a writer. For her pen name she chose simply Olympe de Gouges, a variation of both her mother and father's names. She actively sought to achieve her ambition, propagating the rumors of her illegitimate birth. It has been suggested that she started, or at least encouraged, the rumors because she believed that, by tying her lineage to a marquis, she'd gain her entrance into the higher social circles that she aspired. Also, she most likely believed that a blood tie with Marquis Lefranc of Pompignan, who was a well-known author, would help her establish her own reputation as a writer. The rumor gained currency in her lifetime even though no proof existed of its truth.
During this period, she furthered her career by meeting and establishing connections with the most famous writers and philosophers of the time, and she worked her way into the highest social circles. Remaining resolute in her desire never to marry again, she reportedly became the mistress of several men of high social rank and she divided herself between her many lovers and her writing. A self-educated woman, de Gouges wrote plays, novels, and sociopolitical pamphlets. Her dramatic works included Le Mariage inattendu de Chérubin and Zamore et Mirza ou l'Heureux naufrage.
Her career as a playwright turned out to be somewhat disappointing, as it resulted in only modest success. She was poorly educated, could barely read for a good portion of her life, and her grammar and punctuation were terrible. As a result, her writing tended to be plodding, verbose, and awkward. However, greatly affected by current events, she would soon enter the phase of her career that proved the most productive and thematically significant. She began turning out political works that helped influence the course of human rights, specifically for women. Paris, in the late 1780's, was a political focal point. France was a country in turmoil and on the verge of an influential and inspiring, though bloody, revolution that would attract the attention of the world. De Gouges was swept up in the fervor of the times.
Although most of her fellow citizens were exuberantly political, and even fanatically revolutionary, de Gouges initially took a moderate stance. Reforms she suggested in her political materials were intended to bring about change without sacrificing the social stability. Indeed, de Gouges had friends in the French royalty that was about to be overthrown, but her works often attempted to negatively depict the extremists on both sides of the political spectrum: the royalists, or monarchists, and the revolutionaries. As the storms of revolution swirled, de Gouges still considered herself a royalist. Her 1788 piece Droits de la femme articulated advanced revolutionary ideals while expressing her sympathies for the French monarchy. Also in 1788, she published her Patriotic Remarks, wherein she presented a large program of social reforms and advocated for the dismantling of the monarchial government. The document also outlined the abuses of the elite social class. One of her works was a political satire, Project of a Patriotic Case By Citoyenne, involving a "voluntary tax."
But de Gouges would become disillusioned by the French monarchy's inaction, and she would encourage the French king Louis XVI to abdicate his throne and put in its place a regent government. She felt that this would be a workable solution to an ever-growing crisis. The citizens had armed themselves, the Bastille had been stormed, and blood was literally flowing in the streets. De Gouges would remain a royalist until Louis XVI escaped from the country, a move that further increased the growing chaos. From that point on, her political material become more pointed and she sided more strongly with the revolutionaries.
In 1789, after Louis XVI's escape, she produced two more satires, Cry of Wise by a Woman and To Save the Fatherland.
The sociopolitical works that de Gouge produced during this period focused strongly on the issues of civil rights, particularly the rights of women, which she deemed were "natural" and "inalienable." Her dedication to and advocacy for these issues stemmed from her much broader belief in the complete equality of all human beings.
The revolution created the type of environment that fostered innovative ideas such as feminism. One of the feminist organizations created during this period was the Society of Republican and Revolutionary Women. Its members encouraged de Gouges to develop a document that would essentially serve as a declaration of rights for women. She set out to produce the work, which would eventually be published as the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen in 1791.
In the meantime, her name was becoming widely known in radical circles, just as it had a few years earlier when she established her standing in the bourgeois. In October 1789, the year the French Revolution came to a boil, she proposed a radical reform platform to the French National Assembly, a governing body comprised of the nation's new leaders. Appearing before this board, she advocated for the complete legal equality of the sexes, more job opportunities for women, a legal alternative to the private dowry system, better education for young girls, and the establishment of a national theater that would show only plays written by women.
Declaration of Women's Rights
Finally published in September of 1791, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman (Déclaration of the Droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne) was, in a way, a response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen that was published in 1789 and was to the French Revolution what the Declaration of Independence was the to the American Revolution. De Gouge's declaration called for an extension of the rights demanded in the latter including complete freedom of speech, the right to vote, and the opportunity to seek public office. Lest anyone miss her point, de Gouge employed the same kind of language and rhetoric that characterized the male "Declaration."
De Gouge dedicated the work to Queen Marie Antoinette, hoping that the royal would support women's rights. The work consists of a preamble, 17 articles, and an epilogue. Her words were provocative and incited women to action. In the epilogue, de Gouge proclaimed, "Woman, wake up; the tocsin of reason is being heard throughout the whole universe; discover your rights. The powerful empire of nature is no longer surrounded by prejudice, fanaticism, superstition, and lies. The flame of truth has dispersed all the clouds of folly and usurpation. Enslaved man has multiplied his strength and needs recourse to yours to break his chains. Having become free, he has become unjust to his companion. Oh, women, women! When will you cease to be blind? What advantage have you received from the Revolution?"
Essentially, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen stated that women were equal to men in every respect and thus were entitled to the same rights. The work would create enemies for de Gouge; she believed that because many women participated in the French Revolution, they would or should automatically receive the new-found rights extended to the male citizenry.
Accused of Sedition
De Gouge's outspokenness would eventually lead to her arrest, conviction, and execution. The government that came to power after the overthrow of the monarchy demonstrated no tolerance for perceived subversion or even criticism. In a way, one tyranny replaced another, and de Gouge had placed herself in a rather tenuous situation. She felt she had the right to speak out on the behalf of the citizenry and to assert the rights of women. But in doing so, she violated traditional social boundaries that even the revolutionaries held inviolable, thus invoking the ire of the ruling body. Also, she harshly criticized Maximilien Robespierre, the recognized leader of the new government. Her advocacy of women's rights combined with this criticism, which she published as Pronostic de Monsieur Robespierre pour an animal amphibie, as well as her previous support of King Louis XVI, led to accusations of sedition. In retrospect, and given the tenor of the times, de Gouge's publications of the criticism and "Declaration" were highly impetuous and imprudent actions.
Sent to Trial
At the time of her arrest, she was known publicly as Marie Olympe de Gouges, femme of letters. She was 38 years old and lived in the Pont-Neuf section of Paris, on rue du Harlay. A review of her trial proves enlightening, as it provides a typical example of the persecution that befell the revolutionaries who criticized the new government that arose in the wake of the monarchy's downfall. As this new government, the so-called National Convention, grew stronger, it took on the force of a "Reign of Terror."
De Gouges was charged on July 25, 1793, with having written works contrary to the wants and needs of the entire nation and directed against those in power. She was imprisoned and her writings were reviewed by a public prosecutor the next day. Her interrogation began on August 6, 1793. Following the review and her interrogation, it was determined that she had produced writings that were considered an attack on the sovereignty of the people and that she had questioned and openly provoked civil war and sought to arm citizens against one another.
The public prosecutor assigned to her case expressed great indignation for de Gouges and her writings, claiming that she stated "perfidious intentions," as it is written in the Life, Liberty, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution website. Describing de Gouges as "criminal," the prosecutor ascribed to her "hidden motives" against the sovereignty of the citizens of France and accused her of seeking to reestablish the monarchial government. He also criticized her for alleged inappropriate behavior during her public hearing, accusing her of smirking during her hearing, shrugging her shoulders at the accusations, raising her eyebrows at various statements, and smiling at spectators.
The prosecutor drew up formal accusations and de Gouge was held for trial. She was found guilty and condemned to death according to article one of the new constitution, quoted by the Life, Liberty, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution website, "Whoever is convicted of having composed or printed works or writings which provoke the dissolution of the national representation, the reestablishment of royalty, or of any other power attacking the sovereignty of the people, will be brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal and punished by death."
In an attempt to escape the guillotine blade, de Gouges claimed she was pregnant. She was examined by doctors and midwives, who determined that her claim was false.
Executed by Guillotine
De Gouge was executed in Paris on November 3, 1793, put to death by guillotine, the instrument that had taken the lives of so many royals and members of the bourgeoisie during the revolution, as well as the lives of many staunch and true revolutionaries who dared defy or criticize the implacable government that rose to power. According to reports in the Life, Liberty, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution website, de Gouge ascended the scaffold at 4 p.m., looked into the assembled crowd, and said, "Children of the Fatherland, you will avenge my death."
Following the execution, a published report, quoted in an article by Jone Johnnson Lewis, stated that "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."
Before her death, she wrote to her son, as seen on the Bibliotheca Augustana website, "Good-bye, my son, I will not live any more when you receive this letter. You will repair the injustice which one makes to your mother." In a public statement, she wrote, "Think of me and remember the action that I carried out in favour of the women! I am certain that we will triumph one day!"
Darline Gav Levy, H. Applewhite, and M. Johnson, eds., Women in Revolutionary Paris, University of Illinois Press, 1979.
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