Gouges, Olympe de

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early career
revolutionary activism
feminist legacy

GOUGES, OLYMPE DE (1748–1793), playwright, political pamphleteer, and founding figure of the modern French feminist movement.

Olympe de Gouges was born Marie Gouze on 7 May 1748 in Montauban, France. Her mother, Anne-Olympe Mouisset, came from a family of drapers and her father, Pierre Gouze, was a butcher. There is, however, some doubt about her legitimacy, and it is possible, as she claimed, that her natural father was Jean-Jacques Lefranc, the marquis de Pompignan (1709–1784), president of the Cour des aides (financial court) of Languedoc and a poet-playwright of some note. She was married in 1765, at the age of seventeen, to Louis-Yves Aubry, a supplier and caterer to the intendant of Languedoc. She gave birth to a son, Pierre Aubry, in 1766, and in that same year Louis-Yves Aubry perished in the great flood in Montauban. At nineteen, the widow Aubry took up the name Olympe de Gouges—which she used henceforth on all but notarial documents—and formed a liaison with a well-to-do businessman-bachelor from Lyon, Jacques Biétrix de Rozières. In 1768 Biétrix installed her permanently in Paris with a comfortable income and considerable independence.

early career

Noted for her Mediterranean beauty, her lively wit, her passion for theater, and her love of exotic domestic pets, Gouges rapidly established herself at the heart of fashionable libertine and literary society in the 1770s. She developed connections with the coterie of Philippe d'Orléans (1747–1793), who repaid her attentions with a military commission for her son. Sometime after 1778, perhaps at the encouragement of her two closest literary friends, the marquis de Cubières (a fellow Languedocian) and the Parisian writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Gouges began writing novellas and theatrical works. Though she dedicated the first two volumes of her Oeuvres to d'Orléans in 1788, she later distanced herself publicly from his entourage.

Little is known about her early education except that she was able to sign her marriage certificate and therefore likely to have received the rudiments of literacy in youth. She was largely self-educated and preferred to compose orally with the use of a secretary. Whether through reading or social osmosis in the 1770s and 1780s Gouges absorbed the major ideas of the Enlightenment—especially those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Baron de Montesquieu—and became familiar with the feminine literary tradition that descended from Madame de Sévignè (1626–1696) and Antoinette de Deshouliéres (1638–1694). A Rousseauian faith in natural sympathy as a basis for moral reform, as well as a suspicion of courtly refinement, shaped her worldview throughout her lifetime. By 1784 she was reputed to be the author of two novellas and about thirty plays in the fashionable genre of the drame bourgeois. Her first publications appeared in 1788—a novella, the Memoire de Mme de Valmont, and a play, Zamore et Mirza; ou, L'heureux naufrage (Zamore and Mirza, or the happy shipwreck)—the latter work, however, was widely known before it appeared in print.

Political controversy marked Gouges's public career from its beginnings. A stridently abolitionist drama, Zamore et Mirza was submitted, anonymously, for a reading by the review committee of the Comédie-Française in 1785, and accepted by majority vote for adoption into the Comédie's repertoire. The play, however, was repeatedly passed over for production in the next several years. The Comédiens met solicitations and protests by the author and her supporters with misogynist invective against women of letters and accusations of feminine impertinence. This misogynist rhetoric was in reality a smokescreen for powerful political opposition to the play's abolitionist message among the king's courtiers, who cynically used sexist stereotypes to discredit the author and thereby avoid provoking a public debate about slavery.

Gouges came to the cause against slavery remarkably early—well before the formation of the Société des Amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of Blacks) in 1788. Little is known about the sources of Gouges's interest in abolitionism. Perhaps, as she later recalls, it was her horror at having witnessed the abuse of a black woman slave in her early youth. By the late 1780s she was frequenting the circles of liberal reformers such as Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville and the marquis de Condorcet, as well as the group that came to be known as the Société des Amis de la Constitution (the Jacobin Club), and later, the Cercle Social.

revolutionary activism

With the outbreak of revolution in 1789 she threw herself fully into the political fray as a prolific

pamphleteer. Though a champion of constitutional monarchy, Gouges was less interested in legal and constitutional reform than in the causes of social welfare and civil rights on behalf of the disenfranchised and underprivileged: slaves, children, the poor, the unemployed, and, not least, women. In a flurry of pamphlets, journal articles, and broadsides, published from 1789 to 1792, she offered proposals for a voluntary patriotic contribution to rescue the nation from bankruptcy, a luxury tax to fund national workshops for the poor and unemployed, and houses of refuge for women and children at risk. And she advocated the legitimation of children born out of wedlock; equality of inheritance; the regulation of prostitution; the opening of public and private professions to all on the basis of talent rather than birth, color, or sex; and the legalization of divorce.

The sources of Gouges's feminism were multiple. From an early age she was acutely aware of the civil and economic inequalities of women: Her possible illegitimacy and consequent disinheritance, her mother's financial suffering and dependency as a widow, her own arranged and unhappy marriage, and her financial vulnerability as a young widowed mother, all no doubt marked her. The cynical misogyny of the Comédie-Française was likely to have sharpened her awareness of the degraded situation of women, even in the highest stations. Finally, it is likely that she was exposed to systematic analyses of how to improve the civil and political situation of women through her association with the Condorcets and the Jacobin Club. By 1788 she was already beginning to formulate her views about the situation of women and the means of its improvement and to address her views to women directly, most elaborately in her novella Le prince philosophe, conte orientale (1789; The philosopher prince, an Oriental tale).

The exclusion of women from active citizenship in the French Constitution of 1791 crystallized her ideas and precipitated the composition of her greatest political pamphlet, La déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne (The declaration of the rights of woman and of the female citizen), published in September 1791. In an act of rhetorical genius Gouges added or substituted "woman" for "man" in each article of the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. Thus Article I announced "Woman is born free and remains equal to men in her rights. Social distinctions may be based only upon public utility." Pursuing the same strategy with the ensuing sixteen articles of the declaration, she succinctly re-envisioned civil and political society along sexually egalitarian lines and exposed the contradictions and exclusions concealed by the purportedly universalist claims of the original document. At the end of her Declaration she sketched the outlines for a new "social contract" between men and women that would be the basis for the moral regeneration of society as a whole through a mutually chosen and egalitarian association of the sexes. Along with Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), Gouges's Declaration of the Rights of Woman remains, to this day, one of the most powerful and concise expressions of the modern feminist movement worldwide: women's right to political representation, to equality before the law, to equal property and inheritance rights and to freedom of expression and self-determination in public and private life.

Gouges dedicated her Declaration to the queen, Marie-Antoinette, and in the preface appealed to the queen to join in the cause of improving woman's lot by rallying to the movement for revolutionary reform. While often sharply critical of the king and queen, Gouges held the view that constitutional monarchy was the most suitable form of government for France, even after the declaration of the republic in September 1792. During the king's trial she remained allied with the Girondist faction, advocating a reprieve for the king and a national referendum on his fate; she had an intense dislike for Maximilien Robespierre, leader of the radical Jacobins. As the revolutionary crisis deepened in 1793 and the radical Jacobins tightened their grip upon a nation in civil war, Gouges repeatedly denounced the Terror and was finally arrested and guillotined on 3 November 1793 for publishing a seditious broadside (Les trois urnes [The three urns]) in which she championed the federalist cause.

feminist legacy

Gouges's Declaration of the Rights of Woman received little attention upon its initial publication in 1791, and throughout the first half of the nineteenth century she was remembered as a minor playwright and an unruly revolutionary woman who had paid for her unruliness with her head. The French historian Jules Michelet remarked briefly upon her precocious feminism in his Femmes de la Révolution (1854). For the French feminists of 1848 and beyond she came to seen as a visionary and a martyr to the feminist cause: her searing assertion in the Declaration that "Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she ought equally to have the right to mount to the tribune" seemed to prophesy not only her own end but also the fate of women in postrevolutionary French politics. It is only since the 1970s, with the renewal of the feminist movement in France, that Gouges has begun to receive scholarly and public recognition as one of the political founders of modern France.

See alsoFederalist Revolt; Feminism; French Revolution; Reign of Terror; Robespierre, Maximilien; Wollstonecraft, Mary.


Primary Sources

Gouges, Olympe de. Oeuvres. Edited by Benoíte Groult. Paris, 1986.

Hunt, Lynn, ed. and trans. The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History. Boston, 1996.

Levy, Darline Gay, Harriet Branson Applewhite, and Mary Durham Johnson, eds. and trans. Women in Revolutionary Paris, 1789–1795. Urbana, Ill., 1979.

Secondary Sources

Blanc, Olivier. Olympe de Gouges. Paris, 1981.

Godineau, Dominque. Women of Paris and Their French Revolution. Translated by Katherine Streip. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1998.

Scott, Joan Wallach. Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man. Cambridge, Mass., 1996.

Carla Hesse

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Gouges, Olympe de

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