Olympe De Gouges, the Radical French Feminist Who Was Murdered Twice

Why Olympe de Gouges, whose ideas were too revolutionary for the French revolution, is being resurrected now

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A portrait of Olympe de Gouges.
A portrait of Olympe de Gouges.Credit: Olivier Jeanne-Rose
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“At long last!” the president of the French National Assembly, Claude Bartolone, exclaimed on October 19, 2016. “At last we have arrived at this moment! At last, Olympe de Gouges is entering the National Assembly!”

In a dignified ceremony last year, a granite sculpture of a woman many people had never heard of was installed opposite the statue of the legendary French socialist leader Jean Jaurès. The event was a belated and modest attempt to rectify a prolonged historical injustice done to a woman who was ahead of her time, and paid for it with her life. Not much compensation for so many years of exclusion, silencing, contempt and suppression, or for that day – November 3, 1793, 224 years ago – on which Olympe de Gouges was beheaded in the Place de la Revolution (today Place de la Concorde) in Paris.

“Children of the homeland, you shall avenge my death!” she called out just before the blade slashed into her neck. And only now, more than two centuries later, is contemporary France starting to grasp the meaning of her outcry.

Some 370 women were guillotined during the French Revolution. The best known of them is the queen, Marie Antoinette, who was beheaded as part of the revolutionaries’ efforts to ensure the demise of the Bourbon dynasty and its offshoots. Taking place just two weeks later, the circumstances of de Gouges’ death were already extremely different. She was sentenced to death because “she forgot her natural place,” as her critics put it. She died for her opinions, which were too revolutionary even for those moments of great transformation.

The bust of French playwright and political activist Olympe de Gouges is pictured on October 19, 2016 at the National Assembly in Paris.Credit: ERIC FEFERBERG / AFP

Until not long ago, the few mentions of de Gouges in history books were utterly shameful. A 1900 biography describes her as “arrogant,” “sly,” “pampered,” “brazen,” “licentious,” “greedy,” “wicked” and “crazy.” There was even a quote according to which de Gouges had “ceased to be pretty at a young age.”

“She died with her ideas,” it was said of her. Not so. The ideas she espoused – including income tax and tax on capital; full equality between blacks and whites; a solidly entrenched public health system; welfare services for the needy; and, of course, the right of women to vote and take part in political life – were realized in time and became pillars of modern Western society. Other ideas she put forward, such as abolition of the institution of religious marriages or in favor of an egalitarian social contract between women and men, remain too progressive even for our time and for a country such as Israel.

At present, a growing circle of scholars view de Gouges as a key figure in the history of feminism. According to historian Olivier Blanc, who has devoted more than 30 years to studying her life and publicizing her name in France via books, articles and lectures, “She is much more than the first feminist in the modern era. She is one of the first women who entered political life. She was a model for other women, and for that she also paid with her life.”

Who, then, was Olympe de Gouges, why was she forgotten, and what accounts for her revival precisely at this time?

Born to be free

“Man, are you capable of being fair? A woman is asking: at least you will allow her that right. Tell me, what gave you the sovereign right to oppress my sex? Your strength? Your talents? Observe the creator in his wisdom, examine nature in all its grandeur, for you seem to wish to get closer to it, and give me, if you dare, a pattern for this tyrannical power.”

– Olympe de Gouges, “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen,” 1791

From a young age, de Gouges believed she was destined to be a distinguished playwright. But fate cast her instead in the lead role in the widespread tragedy of the 18th century: life as a woman. She was born Marie Gouze in 1748, in the town of Montauban, southern France, and grew up in a bourgeois family that was not well-off. Officially, her father was a butcher, but very early on she learned that her real, biological father was actually her mother’s lover, Jean-Jacques Lefranc, the Marquis de Pompignan.

Lefranc, whom Marie got to know as a child, was an educated man and a successful playwright-poet. His occupations and social status left a deep impression on her, but their relationship did not last long: The marquis’ ties with Marie were abruptly severed when he married a rich Paris widow. Marie was 9 at the time, no longer had the right to be with him and, of course, had no legitimate claim to his fortune. Far from fading with the years, that early affront only intensified and became a major driving force in her later writing.

De Gouges’ education and place of birth were also not likely to land her in Parisian intellectual circles. The language spoken in southern France at the time was Occitan, not French; she did not learn the latter until she was older. Moreover, her education was quite basic. “Fate left me in total darkness, in the most enlightened century. I know few things, only a few ideas that have not become confused in my memory,” she wrote later, though she was intellectually superior to the girls around her, most of whom were illiterate.

A portrait of Olympe de Gouges.Credit: Olivier Jeanne-Rose

Following the death of her legal father, Marie, lacking pedigree and capital, was forced to marry Louis-Yves Aubry, a cook, at age 17. “I was sacrificed for no reason that could make up for the repugnance I felt for this man,” she wrote, adding that from that moment, she felt she deserved more. De Gouges never explained exactly what made her loathe Aubry so intensely, or why he was “terrible” to her, as she put it – though today some think the term she used refers to violence, possibly even rape. Indeed, she may have fallen victim to such acts at home, like many women at the time. Divorce was then forbidden by law.

In any event, her marriage to Aubry was short-lived. He died just over two years after they wed, a few months after she gave birth to his son. Now 20, a widow and a mother, Marie Gouze left her region of birth and moved to Paris. From that day, she was known by the name she took for herself – Olympe de Gouges – and turned down all the offers of marriage made by her paramours. “Marriage is the tomb of trust and love,” she would write.

She was received in the salons and cafés of Paris by the intellectuals of the period, and found her place among aristocrats, journalists and writers. Surprisingly, they welcomed the young woman who came from nowhere, and it was in their midst that she began to develop her worldview. Influenced by the ideas of her contemporaries Mirabeau and Condorcet – and, like everyone in her circle, by the views of Jean-Jacques Rousseau – de Gouges believed in “natural reason,” in total equality among all people, in a just distribution of capital and in assisting the weak.

She espoused well-founded opinions and sought to share them with the public, only a small proportion of whom could read or write. To that end, she created an amateur theater, published works by dictating them to secretaries who knew how to write French better than she did, and submitted plays to established theaters. Finally, her efforts bore fruit: In 1785, France’s national theater, the Comédie-Française, decided to produce her controversial work “Zamore and Mizra,” also known as “Slavery of the Negroes.”

The play was a fierce condemnation of colonialism and slavery. “This difference [between us] is a very insignificant thing; it exists only in color,” asserts the protagonist – a slave who escaped his masters in order to live with the woman he loves – at the outset, “but the advantages that they have over us are immense. Skill put them above nature: instruction made gods of them and we are mere mortals. They use us in these climes as they use animals in theirs.”

After the theater company agreed to stage her play, she was asked to revise the text, which was deemed to be too sensitive politically. De Gouges felt utterly humiliated. “The arts have no gender,” she wrote in an attack on Comédie-Française, describing the abuse she suffered as a female writer and her reaction to the guffaws that accompanied the reading of her work. “I [bore] in silence this outrageous cruelty. What was I doing in this hellhole, I said to myself, fighting back tears that were about to flow.”

The play eventually premiered at the end of 1789. The hall was packed, but the catcalls of the slavers’ representatives in the audience had their effect. The play closed after only three performances and was written off as a failure.

Despite her disappointment with the world of theater, de Gouges was convinced she had a contribution to make to public discourse, certainly during such a turbulent period as the storm clouds of the French Revolution gathered. In 1788, she started honing her political ideas and wrote articles – which were printed at her own expense – and distributed them across the city. By now, her name had apparently become well known to the Paris elite, as some of her articles were published in the first pages of the newspapers.

Storming of The Bastille, by Jean-Pierre Houël.Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France

A case in point was her article “Patriotic Remarks,” which appeared on the front page of Journal général de France just five months before the fall of the Bastille. “Trade is suppressed, incalculable numbers of workers are unemployed and without bread,” she wrote. “What becomes of them? ... All is in stasis while the heartless rich stash away their wealth, that vile instrument of their cupidity; can it prolong their lives, can it make them happier? These inactive treasures, what good do they do anyone? They must be offered, interest-free, to the State in the same way they are placed in safes.”

De Gouges believed it was essential to levy taxes based on indicators of wealth – jewelry, artworks and the number of servants employed in one’s home. She added a warning to the members of the higher classes: “You must fear the desperation of the poor and their subsequent revolts. It is always the rich who are attacked by their murderous hands, and often in their fury they make no distinction between the good and the bad.”

In September 1789, two months after the fall of the Bastille, a delegation of female aristocrats came to the National Assembly to donate jewelry and other valuable items to the “patriotic purse” de Gouges had referred to in her articles.

Indeed, she was never lacking for ideas. In addition to the proposals for economic reforms aimed at reducing the national debt and preventing the country from sliding into anarchy, de Gouges pressed for the legalization of divorce – an effort that was crowned with success in 1792. She devoted a three-act play to the issue, dwelling in particular on the fate of women who “must live with [the] enemy, at times one’s assassin, [and] must kiss the hand that will do [them] harm.”

She also advocated for the establishment of obstetrics wards in order to reduce maternal mortality in childbirth, which then stood at about 25 percent. She suggested that national workshops be set up to provide vocational training for the unemployed and widows, and that hostels be made available to street dwellers during the harsh winter months. De Gouges was also a member of the Society of the Friends of the Blacks (La Société des amis des Noirs), which campaigned for the abolition of slavery and for equal rights.

“She respected everything human,” says Blanc.

‘Woman, wake up’

For a brief moment, de Gouges believed the world was adjusting itself to her vision. In the early stages of the French Revolution, following the establishment of the National Assembly and before the fall of the monarchy, she expressed her joy at the historic events she was witnessing. But her hopes for a radical, thoroughgoing transformation of society were premature.

“In practice, she did not have the right to take part in the debate,” Blanc notes. “Women did not have the right to be elected to public office or to vote, but de Gouges decided that the situation was not so terrible; she could write articles, publish pamphlets, distribute brochures and send petitions to the National Assembly. She did all those things, thereby rejecting the tradition of so-called ‘women’s politics.’ In other words, she did not make do with the status of a wife who influences her high-ranking husband or a circle of close friends. She uses the first person in her writings – she wrote what she herself thought.”

“On the eve of the revolution, a woman was considered a minor from the legal standpoint for almost her whole life,” explains Prof. Inbal Ofer, of the Department of History, Philosophy and Judaic Studies at Israel’s Open University. “In the first stage of her life, she is under her father’s supervision; and in the second stage under that of her husband. In regard to political activity, the assumption was that an identity of interests existed between wife and husband, and therefore when the husband votes he is also expressing his wife’s opinion” – a notion de Gouges rejected, of course.

In article after article and pamphlet after pamphlet, de Gouge’s rhetoric challenged the society she lived in. The pinnacle of her work was “The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen,” published in 1791 and all but forgotten until recently. In a brilliant stroke, de Gouges took “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen,” passed by the French National Constituent Assembly in August 1789 – the formative text of the French Revolution – and created for it a mirror text in the feminine form, also adding several articles, a preamble and a conclusion.

“Mothers, daughters, sisters, representatives of the Nation, all demand to be constituted into a national assembly. Given that ignorance, disregard or the disdain of the rights of woman are the only causes of public misfortune and the corruption of governments, [they] have decided to make known in a solemn declaration the natural, inalienable and sacred rights of woman,” she wrote at the outset of the declaration. And, “Woman is born free and remains the equal of man in rights. Woman is entitled to mount the scaffold; she must be equally entitled to mount the rostrum [of the National Assembly].”

Philosopher Geneviève Fraisse, research director of the French National Center for Scientific Research, notes the importance of those words for understanding the absurdity of the social status of women in that era. “Either we women are responsible for our actions, in which case we are entrusted with responsibility, or we are not responsible for our actions. But women then were in an interim state. They were responsible for their actions and punished for them, but were not allowed to take part in the public debate,” she explained in a phone interview from Paris.

“The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” did not make do with asserting women’s right to participate in political life. It also touched on their right to own property, and recognition of paternal responsibility for children born out of wedlock. Appended to the declaration was the text of an egalitarian “social contract” between a man and a woman that was meant to replace the institution of Church marriage. In a resounding call to those of her gender, de Gouges writes: “Woman, wake up; the tocsin of reason is resounding throughout the universe: acknowledge your rights.”

By means of these texts, de Gouges tried also to open the eyes of public officials in France, leaders of the revolution, to a basic error in their approach.

“When ‘the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen’ talks about ‘man,’ it is referring to a Christian white male,” explains Prof. Moshe Sluhovsky, an expert in French history and head of the Lafer Center for Women and Gender Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “There is no cognitive contradiction in the mind of any of these thinkers between ‘universal man’ and that narrow definition.”

Adds Fraisse: “Human rights and women’s rights did not appear simultaneously as part of a utopian eruption. The men wanted equality, but not between the sexes.”

De Gouges’ demand for just such equality, Prof. Ofer says when referring to her declaration, was “a challenge to the entire revolutionary system.” She elaborates: “It wasn’t a simplistic viewpoint to the effect that all that needs to be done is to change A or B and everything will be transformed. It’s not just the discussion about the right to vote; it’s also a revision of civil legislation that will make it possible for women to make decisions independently. For her, these were prior conditions to enable women to gain true freedom. For a woman to be able to express an opinion, she needs to know that no one is threatening her right to raise her children and to be in contact with them, she needs to know that no one is threatening her right to possess property.”

Angering the executioner

If de Gouges’ views on gender equality were considered revolutionary, when it came to the revolution itself, she was relatively moderate. She wanted to heal the ills of the absolutist monarchist regime, but doubted humanity’s ability to forge a just regime in its place from scratch. Accordingly, she often advocated a constitutional monarchy, like the system in present-day Britain. She was critical of Louis XVI for betraying his people and for his profligate caprices, but objected to his execution, arguing that this would not serve the revolution. De Gouges also accused the intellectuals of the period of intensifying the frustrations of the masses and of widening the gaps between them and the government. She wrote that she hoped to see the crowning of a proper king, who would be a friend of the people and not a “friend of the courtesans.”

Repeatedly she declared herself to be a royalist and a Republican – ideas that many considered mutually exclusive. “Madame de Gouges would like to see a revolution without violence and without bloodshed. Her wish, which proves she has a good heart, is unattainable,” the newspaper Thermometre du jour wrote in 1792.

And that approach was apparently what sealed her fate.

De Gouges was a woman of compassion and political moderation at the height of a blood-drenched upheaval. The initial movement of revolt was shattered, and voices demanding a more violent change intensified. When the Reign of Terror began under Maximilien Robespierre, de Gouges’ opinions became anathema. But she continued to voice them.

An engraving of Robespierre guillotining the executioner after having guillotined everyone else in France.Credit: La Guillotine en 1793 by H. Fleischmann

“Each hair on your head carries a crime,” she wrote against the tyrant, who was depicted in political cartoons at the time as a madman eager to lop off the head of everyone around him – and when no one is left, beheads the executioner.

Hundreds of thousands of people were arrested and tens of thousands murdered in this horrific chapter of the French Revolution; some 17,000 were guillotined following fake trials. Courageously, or perhaps foolishly, de Gouges dared to assail Robespierre and his lackeys publicly, even calling him a murderer and dictator. “What do you want? What do you demand? What are you avenging? Who do you want to fight, and whose blood do you still thirst for?” she demanded, and added, “But sacred philosophy will shackle your success, for whatsoever may be your momentary triumph or the disorder of this anarchy, you will never govern enlightened men. Tell me, what, actually, will be your place in the pages of history[?]”

Says Blanc: “She was among the first to grasp that Robespierre was a dangerous person, that he was a demagogue who talked about democracy but actually aimed at personal power and dictatorship. And history proved she was right.” Robespierre, for his part, did all he could to see that she would be executed, the historian adds.

“You need to be insane to embark on a mano-a-mano battle against Robespierre,” Prof. Sluhovsky says.

She possessed a touch of megalomania.

Sluhovsky: “Yes, but be careful, that’s something that’s said only about women. Why isn’t Robespierre megalomaniacal? Because women are hysterical and have delusions. In men, it’s considered ambition; in women, megalomania.”

De Gouges was apparently well aware of the concrete danger to her life, and sometimes amused herself by writing about her death as a heroine. After suggesting to Robespierre that she and he should commit suicide together, in order to save the rest of the nation from his dangerous grasp, de Gouges published her “Political Testament” in June 1793 – immediately after the moderate political faction of the Girondins fell and its members arrested.

“Oh divine providence!” she exclaimed. “I invoke you and you alone: men are no longer capable of hearing my words. Take charge of my life; hasten its end. My tired eyes can no longer bear the horror of seeing the sad dissension of men. If you need the pure and spotless blood of a few innocent victims to bring forward your days of terrible retribution, add to this great campaign the blood of a woman. I have planned it all, I know that my death is inevitable.”

‘Let my assassins tremble’

She was right. A month later, on July 20, amid torrential rain and oppressive heat, Olympe de Gouges was arrested opposite the courthouse near Pont Saint-Michel. The distributor of the leaflets with whom she worked had informed on her to the authorities, citing the “anti-revolutionary” content of the flyer she intended to hand out that week, calling for a referendum on the most desirable regime. She was imprisoned for months in dire conditions that ruined her health. Nevertheless, she managed to smuggle out two last texts and ensure their distribution throughout Paris.

“Let my assassins tremble,” she wrote in one of them. “All will be accounted for when I am no longer here. The people will be acquainted with all that I did on their behalf. Good deeds are never without value in this world; experience teaches us that the virtuous individual, persecuted in his lifetime, whose memory is honored after death, gathers unto him tears of gratitude.”

Like many before and after her, de Gouges did not get a fair trial. Although she asked for a lawyer, the jury, which consisted of cronies of Robespierre, decided that, contrary to the law, she must represent herself.

On November 2, 1793, following just one day of hearings, she was sentenced to death by guillotine. On the last night of her life, de Gouges wrote parting words to her son, who had become an officer in the French army. “I die, my son, my dear son; I die innocent,” she wrote. Twelve days later, her son signed an official document in which he dissociated himself from his mother, in order to save his military career and possibly also save his skin. “This monster, I deny that she was my mother. She was not a Republican,” he wrote.

On the freezing-cold afternoon of November 3, 1793, de Gouges was taken from the notorious Conciergerie prison in the cart of the condemned. Her hair had been sheared crudely and she wore a plain dress that exposed her neck for the convenience of the executioner. According to the testimonies, the 45-year-old woman maintained a calm composure in the face of the guillotine that led everyone to agree that “never had such great courage been seen in such great beauty.”

After her death, by order of the authorities, all the papers found in her home were burned. Thus, most of de Gouges’ works and ideas were destroyed.

“Fortunately for us, some of her letters were published and thus survived and reached us, even if they are very rare,” Blanc says. “Some of her texts exist today in only one copy.”

A portrait of Marie Antoinette.Credit: Hessische Hausstiftung / Kronbe

Remember to forget

“Remember the shameless Olympe de Gouges, who was the first to set up women’s clubs, who abandoned the cares of her household to involve herself in the republic, and whose head fell under the avenging blade of the laws. Is it for women to make motions? Is it for women to put themselves at the head of our armies?” The speaker was the prosecutor of Paris, Pierre-Gaspard Chaumette. The executions of Marie Antoinette, Olympe de Gouges and another woman who followed them to the scaffold, Madame Roland – who was known for her influence over her husband, a revolutionary – served Chaumette as a weapon in the struggle to return the women of France to their homes and families, far from the public arena. Women will be worthy of appreciation only when they become what nature demands of them, Chaumette asserted: Women must be respectable, and therefore must be forced to respect themselves.

Chaumette was speaking two weeks after de Gouges’ execution, and his words set the tone. That same month, he published an article in which he stated that de Gouges had “abandoned the cares of her household to get involved in politics and commit crimes. She died on the guillotine for having forgotten the virtues that suit her sex.” The chain of executions and the messages attached to them had the intended effect: France’s women were subdued for the next 150 years.

With one slash of the blade and torching of her papers, Olympe de Gouges was consigned to oblivion. Those who wished her name to be forgotten had their way.

“Her contribution to history is nonexistent,” Prof. Sluhovsky asserts, adding, “She was not important. The story that took shape in the course of the 19th century about the French Revolution and about the history of ideas did not include her.”

However, the historian notes, the very fact she was erased from history is an important fact: “Because the erasure was not just of this one woman, it was a quite systematic erasure from history of the overwhelming majority of women writers, women politicians, women thinkers.”

Fraisse agrees: “What happened to her happened to all the women who stepped beyond the bounds of what they were supposed to do. And it’s happening now, too. When I speak in public, I still get dumb sexist comments hinting that this is not my place.”

Then why is the attitude toward de Gouges changing now?

Fraisse: “Because for a few decades, women like me have been moving things. Feminine history is a long process that began in the 1970s and is still continuing today.”

The origins of that process, she adds, originated in the 1920s, when women in the West began to obtain equal access to education: “My mother’s generation in France was the first to sit for matriculation in subjects that until then were considered masculine. Before that, women learned sewing, not Latin and philosophy. It was only in 1924, less than 100 years ago, that a revolution occurred here that united the two compulsory study tracks of boys and girls – and that is no less important than the right to vote.”

The political-academic approach which holds that women have been systematically excluded from historical narratives developed in the 1960s and ’70s, when Olivier Blanc was a student in his twenties.

“The feminist movement awoke during the students’ revolution of 1968, and many of my female friends were feminists,” he recalls. “I knew a little about Olympe de Gouges, I knew she had written ‘The Declaration of the Rights of the Woman and the Female Citizen,’ and I thought she would be an interesting subject for an article. But the subject turned out to be so interesting, and I found so much archival material, that I decided to write a book.”

Before publishing his work on de Gouges, he found that her image had been tainted by prejudices, Blanc says. “She was said to have been a type of prostitute, that it was impossible to rely on her as a reference in the struggle for women’s liberation – but that was a trap! People knew very well that if the memory of her was preserved, the campaign for women’s lib would gain momentum.”

But there are some things that even 40 years of research and progress (a book about de Gouges was even published in Hebrew in 2014) haven’t corrected. The French left continues, to this day, to perceive the royalists from the revolutionary period as enemies of the Republic. In 2014, France’s then-President François Hollande decided not to admit de Gouges into the Panthéon, the impressive mausoleum and monument that houses French luminaries such as Marie Curie, Victor Hugo and mile Zola. As a kind of consolation prize, a sculpture of her was installed in the National Assembly.

“It was very difficult for me to take action to preserve her memory in France,” Blanc relates. “It’s only in the past few years, thanks to growing interest in her – in other countries, actually – that her image is changing. We need to talk about her constantly and to remember what happened. The mistakes that were made in regard to remembering her must be corrected, because de Gouges is a benchmark for humanity. Men and women need such benchmarks in order to build a stable society, and I think that she is extremely important in constructing women’s status.”

To which Fraisse adds, “Very few people succeed in positioning themselves in the face of their time as she did. And it’s only 200 years later that we are able to recognize” what she accomplished.

It’s just as Olympe de Gouges herself foresaw in her “Political Testament”: “And if one day French women are recalled by posterity, maybe my memory will be held dear.”

Most of the translations in the article are from www.olympedegouges.eu



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