One of the First Feminists Olympe de Gouges

Olympe de Gouges. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One of the first feminists, Olympe de Gouges, began her life in 1748 when she born Marie Gouze in Montauban, Quercy in southwest France. Her mother was Olympe Mouisset and her legal father, Pierre Gouze, was a butcher, but she claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of Jean-Jacques Lefranc, Marquis de Pompignan. She was forced in 1765 to marry a man she felt great repugnance for and did not love. He was a caterer and minor official named Louis Aubry. In 1767, around the time he died, she moved with her son, Pierre, to Paris where her sister Jeanne was living.

Whether the name Gouges was a variant spelling or not is unclear. However, what is clear is that Jeanne sometimes signed her name Gouges, and Olympe also adopted Gouges as her surname instead of taking her father’s or husband’s last name. As a single woman intent on surviving in Paris alone, her own surname helped her to establish her independence and identity.

Plaque honoring one of the places that Olympe de Gouges lived, which is located at 4 rue du Buis, Paris. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Life in Paris was full of exciting prospects. Salons linked to literature, art, or philosophical discussions were popular at the time. She attended many salons meeting influential writers and powerful politicians. Among the salons she visited were those held by Madame de Montesson or the Comtesse de Beauharnais, who were both playwrights. In addition, Masonic Lodges were in vogue, and Olympe joined one, the Loge des Neuf Sœurs (The Nine Sisters).

Within a year of moving to Paris, she developed an intimate relationship with a wealthy Lyon businessman who also served the king as Director of the Office of Marine Funds and Colonies at Versailles named Jacques Biétrix de Rozières. He proposed to Olympe, but she refused to marry him, and, in fact, she never remarried. However, having a relationship with Rozières ensured she lived a comfortable lifestyle but also enjoyed her freed.

Rozières helped her establish her own theatre troupe, and, in the early 1780s, she began to write plays. She wrote several in rapid succession and eventually produced over thirty of them. During the 1780s, she also developed an interest in politics, and, in 1788, she became an outspoken advocate against the French capturing, selling, and buying slaves in the French colonies. She then wrote Reflections on Negroes in February of that same year. In it she stated in the opening paragraph:

“I have always been interested in the deplorable fate of the Negro race. I was just beginning to develop an understanding of the world, at that age when children hardly think about anything, when I saw a Negress for the first time. Seeing her made me wonder and ask questions about her color.”[1]

Bust of Olympe de Gouges at the National Assembly. Author’s collection.

She also wrote the play, L’esclavage des noirs (Black Slavery, or the Happy Shipwreck), which was performed at the Comédie Française in December of 1789. The slave trade lobby was unhappy about it and worried that the play might undermine their business. They therefore mounted a campaign to disrupt it and accomplished that by hiring hecklers to sabotage performances. Olympe took legal action against them, but the play closed after three performances. Critics later blamed her play for inciting the insurrection in Saint-Dominque in 1791 when free people of color and African slaves revolted.

Stories about slaves and the slave trade captured Olympe’s attention, and she decided to relate true events and real-life stories about those affected by slavery. She believed that biases, unfairness, and ignorance were driving the slave trade. Her views were noted in a 2000 political and social anthology:

“[She replaced] the dramatic form of the seventeenth century with a more natural reality. Her emphasis on nature focuses on the inherent equality of all human beings, whether separated by race or gender … [and] in the preface to her play, de Gouges separates slavery from any misguided vision of racial inferiority: ‘It was force and prejudice that had condemned them to the horrible slavery, in which Nature plays no role.’”[2]

When the revolution broke out, Olympe was filled with joy and thought that equal rights would be afforded to everyone. She was completely disillusioned when that did not happen. She then began to challenge male authority openly and became more politically active. For instance, she joined an association that promoted equal rights for women, and, it was at one of their meetings that she famously stated:

“A woman has the right to mount the scaffold, so she should have the right equally to mount the rostrum.”[3]

This statement would later end up as Article 10 in the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” that she authored with the Society of the Friends of Truth and was written in September 1791 in response to the August 1789 “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” The 1789 document was drafted by the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson, and the Count of Mirabeau, and although it was influenced by “natural rights” it ignored women’s rights stating that equal rights belonged only to male citizens.

Women became so upset about the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” and their lack of equality, they eventually marched on Versailles and then presented in October of 1789 the “Women’s Petition to the National Assembly.” This document proposed women be given equal rights. Women also engaged in public debate in revolutionary France by writing pamphlets or public letters that were widely circulated. These were often addressed to public figures who disliked them partly because they criticized the person and partly because they stirred up anger against the person.

Olympe embraced these texts. She found they were an easy way for her to express her opinions, and she plastered them on Parisian walls for everyone to read. She also began to advocate for the right to divorce, child protection, and the feminization of trade names. One of her more notable pamphlets was her offer to the National Convention to defend Louis XVI in her Olympe de Gouges Défenseur officieux de Louis Capet. Later, she attacked and questioned Robespierre in a public letter. He, of course, refused to answer, and, so, in response to his silence, she took to the streets in a noisy demonstration and proposed that she and him throw themselves into the Seine River for the public good:

“You would give your life … for the welfare of your country in order to calm passions and restore peace to the Republic. Let us precipitate ourselves into the Seine together. You require a bath, Robespierre, to wash out the stains of blood acquired since the 10th of August. Your death would soothe people’s mind; and, as for me, the sacrifice of a pure existence would disarm heaven. You know that I am useful to my country; but your death is necessary to save it from great evils.”[4]

Charlotte Corday. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Men feared that equality for women might place them in jeopardy, and there were plenty of men that disliked or hated outspoken women who sought equality rights. Moreover, many people thought certain woman dangerous, women such as Marie Antoinette or Royalist sympathizer Charlotte Corday, whom they blamed for having created turmoil and unhappiness throughout France.

Some people also thought Olympe to be as dangerous as Marie Antoinette or Corday. That was because Olympe always had an opinion and freely gave it. Moreover, because she did not conform to what many people saw as proper feminine behavior, people sometimes attempted to physically attack her. One such incident might have turned into something bad had she not quickly turned the tables:

“Olympe was seated in a crowd; and a brutal wretch, seizing her head, held it tightly under his arm, and dragged off her bonnet; her hair fell down, her poor gray hair destroyed by talent and passion, for she was only thirty-eight years old.

‘Who bids of Olympe’s head at fifteen sous?’ cried the barbarian.

She softly said, without the least emotion ‘My friend, my friend, I bid thirty sous for it.’ The crowd laughed, and she escaped.”[5]

Olympe’s audacious and controversial writings eventually got her into trouble with the Jacobins, and she was accused of being a counter-revolutionary and arrested in late July 1793. For the next three months she sat in jail without an attorney. The judge who heard her case refused to give her legal representation because he ruled that she could defend herself and pointed to her writings as proof of her capabilities.

As revolutionary justice churned forward, Olympe did not remain idle. With help from her friends, she continued to be outspoken about the revolution and published two last texts. They were Olympe de Gouges au tribunal révolutionnaire (“Olympe de Gouges at the Revolutionary Tribunal”) about her prison interrogations and the other a condemnation of the Terror that she titled Une patriote persécutée (“A [female] patriot persecuted”).

Marie Antoinette at the Tuileries Palace in 1790 by Alexandre Kucharski. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Shortly after Olympe’s arrest an exhaustive search of her house was ordered and during the search an unfinished play was discovered. It was titled, La France Sauvée ou le Tyran Détroné (“France Preserved, or The Tyrant Dethroned”). In it Marie Antoinette planned her defense strategy and imagined herself confronting the queen for her seditious intentions, which she then lectured her on telling her how to be a better leader.

At trial, prosecutors brought up the play and claimed it proved that Olympe was a Royalist supporter and that she was trying to gain sympathy for the queen. Olympe argued it proved just the opposite. She maintained that her play indicated she was a staunch supporter of the revolution. In addition, she must have felt that her trial imitated the fictitious ones she had written about and always imagined:

“A spectator … noted that, as the charges against her were read, she ‘repeatedly joined her hands and rolled her eyes toward the ceiling, then with an expressive gesture would suddenly show surprise, then, looking straight into the audience, smile.’”[6]

Olympe’s son, Pierre Aubry. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The day before she was sentenced, Olympe knew the inevitable result and sent a note to her son Pierre. He never received it or any of the other notes she sent as they were confiscated and not delivered. Her note stated:

“I die, my dear son, a victim of my idolatry for the fatherland and for the people. Under the specious mask of republicanism, her enemies have brought me remorselessly to the scaffold. … Twenty times I made my executioners pale and not knowing how to reply to each sentence that betrayed my innocence and their bad faith, they sentenced me to death, lest the people be led to consider my fate as the greatest example of iniquity the world has ever seen. Farewell my son, I shall be no more when you receive this letter. I die, my son, my dear son: I die innocent.” [7]

Just before Olympe was sentenced, she announced to the tribunal that she was pregnant. Perhaps, she hoped to delay her sentence and see Pierre one last time. That did not happen because it was quickly determined that she was not pregnant. Thus, on 3 November 1793, after a tortuous one-hour ride in a tumbril, she was executed at the Place de la Revolution for displaying seditious behavior, attempting to reinstate the monarchy, and associating with Girondists.

From atop the scaffolding, she cried out, “Children of the fatherland … you will avenge my death.”[8] Five days later, Pierre, supposedly bitter about having been suspended from his office as vice-general and head of battalion because of his mother’s arrest and execution, published a public address disowning her and reaffirming his support for the revolution and the republic:

“Je jure donc ici que je désavoue hautement les écrits séditieux et contre-révolutionnaires d’Olympe Gouges, que je ne la reconnais plus pour avoid été ma mère, et que j’approuve le jugement du Tribunal Révolutionnaire – Eh bien – Vive la République!”[9]*

Olympe’s body was taken to the Madeleine Cemetery, one of four cemeteries used to dispose of corpses guillotined during the French Revolution. There she joined those previously guillotined, such as Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and Corday. Special trenches were dug, and quicklime was used to help speed up decomposition of the headless bodies buried in the communal graves. There were no markers so exactly where Olympe was buried is unknown. Later, some anonymous witness to her execution described the last few minutes of her life:

“[A] most extraordinary person called Olympe de Gouges … approached the scaffold with a calm and serene expression on her face, and forced the guillotine’s furies, which had driven her to this place of torture, to admit that such courage and beauty had never been seen before. … That woman … had thrown herself in the Revolution, body and soul. But having quickly perceived how atrocious the system adopted by the Jacobins was, she chose to retrace her steps. 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.”[10]

*English translation of Pierre’s statement: “I swear here that I strongly disavow the seditious and counterrevolutionary writings of Olympe Gouges, that I do not recognize her being my mother, and that I approve the judgment of the Revolutionary Tribunal – Well – Long live the Republic!”

References:

  • [1] Olympe de Gouges, “Reflections on Negroes,” Francophone Slavery University of Georgia, http://slavery.uga.edu/texts/literary_works/reflections.pdf, p. 1.
  • [2] H. L. Smith and B. A. Carroll, Women’s Political & Social Thought: An Anthology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 132.
  • [3] Olympe de Gouges, “Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne,” Gallica Les Essentiels Littérature.
  • [4] Pall Mall Gazette, “Letter From Paris,” April 4, 1879, p. 4.
  • [5] J. Michelet, The Women of the French Revolution (Philadelphia: Baird, 1855), p. 128–29.
  • [6] Janie Vanpée, “Performing Justice: The Trials of Olympe de Gouges,” Theatre Journal 51, no. 1 ; Women, Nations, Households, and History, (Mar 1999): p. 64–65.
  • [7] Blanc, Oliver, Last Letters: Prisons and Prisoners of the French Revolution 1793-1794 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1987), p. 131-132.
  • [8] J. Kavanagh, Woman in France During the Eighteenth Century (Edinburgh: Smith, Elder & Company, 1864), p. 449
  • [9] The American Magazine v. 16 (New Yortk: Crowell-Collier Publishing Company, 1883), p. 496.
  • [10] S. Mousset, Women’s Rights and the French Revolution: A Biography of Olympe De Gouges (New Brunswick: Taylor & Francis, 2017), p. 99.

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