Strong Women: Olympe de Gouges

“A woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker’s platform”

I know, it’s been a while since my last article. I was so frustrated with this lockdown that I was just thinking about quitting my job and changing life. Today I am still a bit frustrated but I realized that I love my job too much to give up the chance to write about what I really like so: I am back, right on time for Women’s Day. A day that I will celebrate inaugurating a new series dedicate to strong women.

Please allow me introduce to you Olympe de Gouges, a French playwrigt, political activist and social reformer who challenged conventional views, especially about women and slaves, and ended up losing her head on the scaffold on November 3rd, 1793. She was one of the women of the French Revolution and she is considered to be one of the first feminists.

Born Marie Gouze in 1748, she was obliged to marry Louis Aubry in 1765. About this marriage arranged against her will she later wrote: “I was married to a man I did not love and who was neither rich nor well-born. I was sacrificed for no reason that could make up for the repugnance I felt for this man.” When her husband died, just one year after the wedding, she moved to Paris and never left, nor married again.

In Paris, with the support of her lover, she attended the intellectual, political and artistic salons; established a theatre company and started her carrier as a playwright. She came to the public’s attention in 1785, with the play l’Esclavage des Noirs. Her stance against the slavery in the French colonies made her a target and she was attacked by those who thought that the woman’s place was at home, cooking and raising children. Abraham-Jospeh Benard, a French actor, stated “Mme de Gouges is one of those women to whom one feels like giving razor blades as a present, who through their pretensions lose the charming qualities of their sex… Every woman author is in a false position, regardless of her talent.” Olympe was not intimidated. She wrote “I’m determined to be a success, and I’ll do it in spite of my enemies.” Unfortunately, the play was sabotaged and when, in 1791, free people of colour and African slaves living in the colony of Saint-Dominique (Haiti) revolted, De Gouges was accused of having incited the insurrection. Eventually, when the play was staged again in 1792, a riot erupted in Paris… It was clear that the Revolutionaries were not really fond of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. You can guess how happy they were when Olympe published her new Déclaration des droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne (Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen) in 1791… De Gouge was always interested in politics and she welcomed the Revolution with hope but she was disillusioned when the idea of égalité (equal rights) was not extended to women so she decided to act and joined the “Social Club”, an association with the goal of equal rights for women, supported among the others by Sophie de Condorcet, another women advocate.

Her moderate positions about the Revolution, her defence of king Louis XVI and her vehement writings supporting the idea of a constitutional monarchy led her to the prison and then to the guillotine. Her last work, Une patriote persécutée (“A [female] patriot persecuted”), is an open critic of the Terror. Luckily her legacy lived on. The path for equal rights is still long but we can definitely share her thoughts and say with her:

“Woman, wake up; the tocsin of reason is resounding throughout the universe: acknowledge your rights”.

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