I had never heard of Olympe de Gouges. I only became aware of her name when I started researching The French Revolution. At first she was just one of the many victims of The Reign of Terror during which thousands of people were executed. Then I started reading about her. And the more I learned about her, the more fascinated and enthralled I became by her story.
First I thought that it was me, I just hadn’t paid enough attention in history class, which seems odd since history was my favourite subject. So, I started asking family and friends but it quickly became clear that while everyone is familiar with the stories of Mary Wollstonecraft and Emmeline Pankhurst, Olympe de Gouges doesn’t ring any bells.
Why I have never heard of Olympe de Gouges and the risks that she took as an advocate for human rights is beyond my understanding. I’m not a historian, and I don’t like writing factual articles, but her story should be told, and that is why I would like to share this brief version of her life with you.
Act I: Moving to Paris and writing plays
Marie Gouze was born in Montaubon in 1748, she was born into a family with a low social status (a very important fact if you’re living in 18th century France) and little wealth. At sixteen years old Marie was forced to marry a husband whom she didn’t love. He died one year later, and it took her three more years to move to Paris and change her name into Olympe de Gouges.
Gouges established herself there as a playwright. She started moving around in literary circles and in the salon of Sophie de Condorcet who was another champion for the rights of women. Olympe de Gouges was first brought to public attention with her play L’Esclavage des Noirs, in which she speaks out against the treatment of slaves in the French colonies. Gouges insisted that all men are equal and this belief created her some powerful enemies. Her play was brought to a standstill by a group of slave traders and she was later accused of giving rise to an anti-slavery insurrection in Saint-Dominique.
During this time she was also attacked for being a woman who writes plays. The very well known actor Abraham-Joseph Bénard was of the opinion that women should be in the kitchen. He’s recorded to have said that ‘every woman author is in a false position, regardless of her talent.’
This didn’t frighten Gouges. She continued to write over thirty plays. Her work always had a deeper meaning and addressed injustice. Her play Le Couvent ou les voeux forcées talks about the brutality of being forced to join religious orders, while La Nécessité de Divorce argues that everyone should have the right to have a divorce.
Find a book containing her plays here
Act II: The Declaration of the Rights of Women
Olympe must have been enthusiastic and overjoyed when The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was all one could talk about in 1789. At last it looked like equal rights could become more than just a fantasy. The declaration was penned by the abbé Sieyès and the Marquis de Lafayette with a bit of help from Thomas Jefferson. Here it’s beautifully painted by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier.
The declaration advocated basic human rights such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech and went on to inspire the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
Olympe de Gouges was quickly disillusioned. There were some serious faults in the declaration which she could not ignore. Slavery was not abolished. Citizens could only be male. The rights described in the declaration could not be enjoyed by women.
This prompted Gouges to write The declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen. When you compare the two texts it becomes obvious that the version of Gouges is almost word for word based upon the original version. The first article declares that ‘men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common good,’ in the declaration written by Gouges we read that ‘woman is born free and remains equal to man in her rights. Social distinctions should be based only on the common good.’
The text which Olympe de Gouges wrote wasn’t very well received. By now we have arrived in 1791, the time during which Robespierre and the radical supporters of the Revolution gained more influence. The Jacobins didn’t fail to notice that her declaration was addressed to Queen Marie Antoinette. That made them suspect that Olympe de Gouges was a supporter of the monarchy. The monarchy that they so desperately wanted to get rid off. Gouges was looked upon with mistrust.
‘No one should be persecuted for their opinions’
Act III: France Preserved, or The Tyrant Dethroned
Gouges welcomed the Revolution, and was well connected within the Girondine pary, like them she favoured a constitutional monarchy. She also opposed capital punishment, which is why she wrote to the National Assembly a month before the execution of Louis XVI and proposed to defend the king. She argued that he should be exiled rather than executed.
The deputies were outraged. A woman who meddled into political affairs? How dare she? Olympe de Gouges didn’t let that discourage her. She continued to produce pamphlets and as the Revolution progressed and the violence increased, she became more passionate and outspoken in her writings.
The piece that led to her arrest was ‘The Three Urns, or the Salvation of the Fatherland, by an Aerial Traveller,’ in which she proposed a referendum. One of the options was a constitutional monarchy, but the law had made it a capital offense to support the monarchy in any way.
Her house was searched and they found an unfinished play titled ‘France Preserved, or The Tyrant Dethroned.’ In the play Gouges herself plays a role and lectures the Queen. She advises her and tells her how the people of France should be ruled. This was enough. For the prosecutor it meant that Gouges was a supporter of the monarchy. Gouges defended herself. She used the play to prove that she had always believed in the revolution, but she was sentenced to die. She tried to save her life by feigning pregnancy, but was disbelieved.
Act IV: Execution
While awaiting execution Olympe de Gouges continued to write. In these texts she condemned the ugly turn which the revolution had taken and wrote a farewell note to her son. While imprisoned she was reminded of the September massacres (1792). During those five days thousands of prisoners were brutally murdered as the government looked the other way. She wrote: ‘they transferred me to the Abbaye prison where I have been for three weeks, in one of those rooms where you can see the blood of the victims of September printed on the walls.’
‘Woman has the right to mount the scaffold, so she should equally have the right to mount the rostrum.’Olympe de Gouges
Olympe de Gouges was executed on the third of November 1793. An anonymous bystander wrote: ‘ Yesterday, at seven o’clock in the evening, a most extraordinary person called Olympe de Gouges who held the imposing title of woman of letters, was taken to the scaffold’ and continued ‘ She attempted to unmask the villains through the literary productions which she had printed and put up. They never forgave her, and she paid for her carelessness with her head.’
Olympe de Gouges was forty-five when she died. After her execution her son signed a letter in which he stated that he didn’t approve of his mother’s politics. He might have signed this letter out of free will, or he might not. What he really thought about his mother is something that we will never know. The Reign of Terror continued to claim many more lives until the Fall of Maximilien Robespierre on the 27th of July 1794.
Act V: Her battle continues
The painting ‘Liberty Leading the People’ by Eugène Delecroix is about a different revolution that took place in 1830. But this paining enhances the story of Gouges. She may have been forgotten by history after she lost her life on the scaffold, but her principles and her fight for human rights lived on.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was inspired to write A vindication of the Rights of Women after reading the work of Gouges. Olympe’s text was also used by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) to draft the Declaration of Sentiments which demanded equal right for women in The United States.
The work of Gouges has unsurprisingly not been welcomed by everyone. The influential French historian Jules Michelet (1789-1874) argued that her ‘weak head’ didn’t understand the political affairs in which she meddled.
It would take many more years before the ideas of Gouges were listened to. Slavery was abolished in the French territories in 1848. French women were given the right to vote in 1944. Her work on women’s rights was endorsed by the United Nations when the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women was drafted in 1967. The last person to be executed by guillotine in France was Hamida Djandoubi in 1977, it would take four more years before the death penalty was abolished.
While all of this happened Olympe de Gouges remained unknown to the public.
Because my historical fiction novel is set during the French Revolution, I read a lot of fiction and non-fiction books about the Revolution. If the name Olympe de Gouges is mentioned, I nearly fall off my chair. The most popular books about the subject which can be found in the history section of nearly every bookshop all fail to mention her name, which makes it very hard to find trustworthy sources that tell about the life of this truly remarkable person. The books that do mention her name are often very expensive and difficult to find.
I see The French Revolution as a time of extraordinary events caused by ordinary people. There are no military geniuses like Napoleon, or monarchs building exceptional legacies like Louis XIV.
But there’s Olympe de Gouges. For me she’s one of the key figures of the Revolution. A name forgotten by history. A name that continues to be ignored. A name that everyone should know. She lived during a time that demanded exceptional change, but the change that she proposed was too advanced, too open-minded, too revolutionary. There was too much equality, too much liberty and too much fraternity in her ideas.
Thank you very much for reading and as always I would love to hear from you in the comments.