Olympe de Gouges: the recalcitrant revolutionary

Olympe de Gouges - executed in the aftermath of 1789 for speaking her mind - has yet to be recognised properly by the modern Republic.
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On 3 November 1793 Olympe de Gouges was led to the scaffold in Paris in the Place de la Révolution (now Place de la Concorde) and guillotined. She had kept her composure with dignity and courage: ‘Enfants de la Patrie’, she declared, ‘you will avenge my death’. She was 45. She had been preceded earlier in that year, the Year of Terror, by Marie-Antoinette and many others. Her crime? Though a revolutionary herself – albeit of the moderate Girondin faction – she opposed capital punishment and had taken a stand against the execution of Louis XVI. She was in favour of a constitutional monarchy and had denounced the Jacobin-led massacre of detained royalists (September 1792). She ended up being herself a victim of the Jacobin terror, like many Girondins. She was a revolutionary too moderate for the times.

The trouble with Olympe is that she was a troublemaker.

Born on 7 May 1748 in Montauban in southern France, she was the daughter of Pierre Gouze, a butcher. Her maternal grandfather had been a lawyer. After the death of her elderly and much unloved husband she moved to Paris and changed her name to the more stylish and aristocratic ‘de Gouges’. Having decided to become a femme de lettres, she vowed never to marry again, perhaps because the law at the time did not allow a woman to publish anything without her husband’s consent. Soon she was decrying the institution of marriage, demanding the elimination of religious unions in favour of a civil contract (today we would call it a civil partnership).

Aware of the inevitable ‘rising up against me of the hypocrites, the prudes, the clergy and all the infernal gang’, she even wrote instructions on how to draft the new ‘marriage’ contract: ‘We join together for the duration of our lives by our own volition, and for the duration of our mutual fondness’, adding that, in case of separation, the parties would share the wealth.

In Paris she enjoyed life and various rich lovers, but she was far from being yet another ‘kept’ woman, like so many provincial ladies who had descended on Paris in the years preceding the revolution and who were quickly transformed from ‘innocent’ girls to women of ‘easy virtue.’ She was embroiled in the revolutionary zeitgeist, one which espoused the cause of the abolition of the slave trade then flourishing in France as in England. Olympe joined the abolitionist Société des Amis des Noirs, the French counterpart of the British Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Then she set up a theatre company and, in 1784, wrote an abolitionist play L’esclavage des noirs, ou l’heureux naufrage [‘The slavery of the blacks, or, the happy shipwreck’].

L’esclavage des noirs should have been performed at the Comédie-Française under the less provocative title of Zamore et Mirza, ou L’heureux naufrage. The play tells the story, in the melodramatic style of the period, of two romantically linked runaway Black slaves, Zamore and Mirza. They end up on an island becoming friends with a French couple, who have just survived a shipwreck. The dialogue is stilted and the plot unremarkable, but what is noteworthy is the play’s didactic call for justice and equality. Mirza asks Zamore to explain to her what the difference is between blacks and whites. The difference, he says, is ‘insignificant; it exists only in colour’, but ‘the advantages that whites have over us are immense…. They use us as they use animals. They came here, seized our land, our wealth, and enslaved us. The fields they reap used to belong to us. These barbarous masters treat us with a cruelty that would make nature tremble; …They carefully avoid instructing us; if our eyes were to open, we would be horrified.’

The play ran at the Comédie-Française in 1785 for only three nights. The backlash from slave-owners, some of whom helped finance the theatre, was considerable. They succeeded in stopping the play and even tried to send Olympe to the Bastille. The play was finally performed in 1789 and published in 1792 with its original title.

In 1788 just before the revolution, having written two more anti-slavery plays, she also published her Réflexions sur les hommes nègres. ‘The deplorable fate of black men has always interested me’ she wrote. ‘When I was younger those to whom I enquired satisfied neither my curiosity nor my rationality. They treated Blacks as if they were brutes, cursed by the heavens.’ She saw clearly, she explained, that it was only the prejudice and the power of white men that had condemned them to slavery. Nature was not responsible for their conditions.

Olympe de Gouges lived long enough to see the 1791 revolution in Saint-Domingue (later Haiti) led by Toussaint Louverture, the first anti-colonial revolution which led to the establishment of the first black government outside of Africa. But she was dead by the time the French Republic’s abolition of the slave trade (1794), overturned by Napoleon in 1804 and definitively abolished only with the revolution of 1848.

Because of her commitment to abolition Olympe was included, in 1808, in the Liste des Hommes courageux qui ont plaidé la cause des malheureux Noirs (‘list of brave men who have supported the cause of the unfortunate Blacks’), by the abbé Henri Grégoire, the great activist in the struggle against racism and anti-Semitism. The irony of being included in a list of ‘hommes’ would not have escaped her.

Olympe de Gouges produced plays constantly, seldom performed even after her death. One, Molière chez Ninon, (1787) was a tribute to Ninon de l’Enclos, the famous 17th century courtesan, her ideal woman, strong and free-spirited who lived according to her own principles and not those of the rest of society.

In 1790 she wrote a play defending divorce (La Nécessité du Divorce) – two years before divorce was legalised. Then she wrote a humoristic play Les Démocrates et Les Aristocrates set during the festival celebrating the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, then one in homage to Mirabeau (Mirabeau aux Champs-Elysées) who shared her belief in a constitutional monarchy – a belief which, for her, did not outlast the royal family’s flight to Varennes.  

In August 1789 the National Assembly approved the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (condemned by Edmund Burke as well as by Jeremy Bentham as an anarchistic absurdity). A few months later, on 5 October 1789, a march of women to Versailles submitted a petition to the Assembly, the Rêquete des dames a l’Assemblée Nationale. This, one of the many feminist pamphlets and texts of the time (utterly ignored by most of the books on the French Revolution) noted that the Déclaration had completely failed to take any notice of women and proposed giving women equal rights in all matters including even the right to wear trousers (the culotte) and demanding, way in advance of the times, that the masculine gender should no longer be regarded as the more noble genre because all genders, ‘should be and are equally noble’.

A year later the philosopher Condorcet and the Dutch feminist Etta Palm d’Aelders urged the National Assembly to extend civil and political rights to women. But the Assembly remained firmly in the masculinist camp: no rights for women.

This drove Olympe de Gouges to publish, in 1791, her famous Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen (Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne). This was a trenchantly ironic document – unlike the original Déclaration of ‘man’ which it followed point by point. She started with ‘Woman is born free and remains equal to man in rights. Social distinctions may only be based on common utility.’

The preamble stated that since women are often forgotten it is necessary to reaffirm that their rights should be respected since they are ‘the superior sex in beauty as well as in courage, given the suffering undergone while giving birth.’ She offered ‘an invincible method to elevate the souls of women: to include them in all the practices of men.’

The conclusion was an equally decisive call on women: ‘Woman, wake up; the tocsin of reason is resounding throughout the universe: acknowledge your rights…. Women, when will you cease to be blind? What advantages have you gained with the Revolution? A greater scorn, a more pronounced disdain!’  She claimed that under the ancien régime a woman had only to be beautiful and amiable: ‘when she possessed both advantages a hundred fortunes would be spread at her feet.’ That constituted a ‘commerce of women’ since a woman could be purchased by a man, ‘like a slave on the coasts of Africa.’ Marriage, she declared, was the ‘tomb of trust and love’. Women have been forced to dissimulate, to charm, to use their wiles, while men, ‘puffed up with science’, deploying ‘the crassest ignorance’, want to command, ‘like a despot, a sex that is blessed with every intellectual faculty’.

The most famous line of Olympe de Gouges’s Déclaration was in her Article Ten: since under French law women were fully punishable, yet denied equal rights, she declared ‘If women have the right to mount the scaffold, they must also have the right to mount the speaker’s rostrum’ (la femme a le droit de monter sur l’échafaud; elle doit avoir également celui de monter à la Tribune). Did she think of that as she mounted the scaffold having contributed so much to the rostrum of the revolution?

In the end, of course, she was right, but the ‘end’ took a long time: 153 years elapsed between her execution and the law of 21 April 1944 which, finally, extended the suffrage to French women. Nor was that the end. In spite of widespread pressures, the socialist President François Hollande did not think she should join the abbé Henri Grégoire, Condorcet and Mirabeau – with whom she shared many battles – in the Panthéon where the remains of the ‘Greats’ of France are interred. As of 2018 the remains of 78 people have been transferred to the Panthéon – seventy-three men, only five women.

Donald Sassoon

Donald Sassoon is Emeritus Professor of Comparative European History (Queen Mary, University of London). He is the author, among others, of Mona Lisa, One Hundred Years of Socialism, The Culture of the Europeans and, recently, The Anxious Triumph (a history of global capitalism 1860-1914). His Morbid Symptoms (already out in Spain and Italy) will be out in the UK in January 2021.

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