Gouges, Olympe de (d. 1793)

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Gouges, Olympe de (d. 1793)

Gouges, Olympe de (d. 1793), French writer.

Feminists such as Benoîte Groult assert that Olympe de Gouges' absence from the historical record was caused by a single factor: she was a woman. It appears, however, that in the case of Olympe de Gouges, there were additional reasons. She was legally low-born, denied any formal education, married at 16, a mother and widow at 17, and too proud and too independent to use either her late husband's name or to remarry. Her temperament, politics, and primarily her gender put off possible supporters and employers in the literary world, making it enormously difficult for her to find publishers. The works she did manage to get printed were largely ignored and are only now being collected and published.

Beyond the obstacles associated with meddling in the 18th-century world of male politics and of asserting that woman had rights and responsibilities equal to those of man, de Gouges had three strikes against her. First, like her contemporary Count Mirabeau, she supported King Louis XVI but, unlike Mirabeau, she lived long enough to meddle in his trial. Second, she supported the losing political party in 1792, the Girondins. Third, in 1793 she attacked the leader of the victorious Jacobin political party, Maximilien Robespierre. He targeted her and she—like so many Girondin leaders, like the king and the queen, and like Robespierre himself less than a year later—was guillotined, lost in a crowd. De Gouges's one monument, her Déclaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, was covered up, neglected until recently.

The only source for de Gouges's early life is her autobiographical novel Mémoire de Mme Valmont, and what of the novel is factual remains a question for debate. The Jean-Jacques of the novel was Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pomignan (d. 1784), a magistrate and writer of local fame. Was de Pomignan her biological father, and did De Gouges inherit her intellect and creativity from him? Or did the fiction of a noble birth leaven the rough baker's dough so that it rose beyond itself? De Pompignan was correct about legitimate birth. There are witnesses to a birth certificate showing Marie Gouze born to Pierre Gouze, a butcher at Montauban, and Olympe Mouisset, a trinket seller. De Gouges wrote nothing, however, about these two, and there is no record of any formal education. Of her marriage at 16 to Louis-Yves Aubry, a restauranteur and caterer at Montauban, she wrote little, later calling him an old man she never loved, who was neither rich nor well-born. He died soon after the birth of their son Pierre, leaving a small pension.

In widowhood at Montauban, de Gouges developed a friendship with Jacques Biétrix de Roziéres, a contractor in military transport, and he took her to Paris. Her biographers believe that she refused to marry de Roziéres because she viewed marriage as "the tomb of faith and love."

She Begins Extensive Writing. In Paris from 1767 or 1768, de Gouges developed the reputation of a "femme galante"—an attractive, free-spirited, unattached female with an active social and cultural life replete with many friends, many of them respectable. She may have learned to write during this period, but most of her works seem to have been dictated to secretaries/friends. (In fact, many well-known writers of the day employed assistants.) Even with their assistance, her lack of formal education is reflected in her works. "Si j'ecris mal," she once wrote, "je pense bien." ("I write bad, but I think good.") Her biographer Olivier Blanc has identified 135 writings of de Gouges plus seven articles in six different newspapers—four of which are antislavery pieces. Twenty-nine are novels and short stories, 45 are theater pieces, and 64 are political pamphlets, tracts, brochures, and placards.

De Gouges's first play is considered her best dramatic work. She called it, "the first effort of my feeble talent." "Zamour and Mirza, or the Happy Shipwreck" (happy because two slaves were liberated) was written in 1784 and submitted anonymously to the selection committee of the Comédie Française, which accepted it the following year. Performance of the play was long delayed. Powerful colonial interests feared that sympathetic portrayal of blacks might threaten the profitability of French colonies. De Gouges was threatened with a lettre de cachet (arrest order signed by the king) and actors refused to blacken their faces. In 1789, the play was retitled "Slavery of Negroes" and was performed by the Comédie Française. Uproar ensued. The mayor of Paris condemned it as an incendiary piece which would cause revolt in the colonies. One critic reviewed the play in only one sentence: "We can only say that in order to write a good dramatic work, one must have hair on the chin." The production closed after three performances.

During the five years between the writing and the performance of this first play, de Gouges wrote many dramas, of which only a few texts survive.

Early in 1787, Finance Minister Calonne persuaded King Louis XVI to assemble a blue-ribbon panel called the assembly of Notables to consider Calonne's reform package to rescue finances. Calonne hoped that the assembly would endorse his reforms, thus influencing the law courts to enregister them. Enthralled by the constant news reports of the Assembly's proceedings, de Gouges turned her imagination to politics.

In 1788, de Gouges published Letter to the People, or Project for a Patriotic Bank by a Female Citizen. She called for a voluntary tax to fund a bank which "would be the envy of all the courts of Europe and shame the law courts" which had refused the king's tax edict. Also in 1788, De Gouges published Reflections on Blacks. She used this work to urge performances of her play Zamour and Myrza (which would be performed the following year), but also made this argument: everywhere in nature one sees variety—different kinds of trees, different kinds of flowers, different kinds of birds, fish, and so forth. Likewise one sees different kinds of human beings. Every kind of human is as precious as trees and other parts of nature are precious. Soon, the Revolution would abolish slavery. Whether or not her work influenced this progress, she was—as in the case of a national bank—in advance of such change.

She Presents Her Declaration of Women's Rights. In the summer of 1791, de Gouges authored her Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne (Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen) patterned after the Declaration of the Rights of Man and The Citizen decreed as the first part of the Constitution by the National Assembly in August 1789. De Gouges sent a copy to the National Assembly then ending its term and a copy with a cover letter to Queen Marie Antoinette. No one has found evidence that the queen, or the National Assembly, or its successor the Legislative Assembly, ever admitted to having received it. The Legislative Assembly once voted hommage to de Gouges for "patriotic acts" (not mentioning the Déclaration) and, in its closing days, even received her. The preamble to the Déclaration began with characteristic directness and lack of diplomacy: "Man, are you capable of being just? It is a woman who asks you this question. Who has given you the authority to oppress my sex?" Unspeakably radical then, the Déclaration is still radical today (in it, De Gouges insisted on exact equality, including combat roles in the military).

In 1792 de Gouges enthusiastically endorsed the proclamation of the Republic, but attempted to defend King Louis whom the Jacobins insisted on trying for treason. Having overthrown the constitution, the Jacobins now demanded the king's death for violating that same constitution. De Gouges and the Girondins opposed the death sentence and few still argue that they were wrong to do so. The execution of King Louis XVI on January 21, 1793, was followed by the entrance of England into the War of the First Coalition and by a bloodbath in France. The Girondin leadership was arrested in the early summer of 1793 and guillotined in the fall.

Increasingly, de Gouges viewed Robespierre as a dictator violating liberty and the Republic. In a public letter, "Response to the Justification by Maximilien Robespierre, addressed to Jerome Petion, President of the Convention," she asked, "Do you know how far you are from Cato?" Then, continuing the comparison of Mirabeau to the virtuous Roman senator who opposed Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar, she added, "As far as Marat from Mirabeau, as far as the mosquito from the eagle, and as far as the eagle from the sun." That did it, of course. It was de Gouges or Robespierre. De Gouges recognized this. Arrested July 20, 1793, De Gouges was accused before the Paris Tribunal on November 2. The next day she was guillotined. Eight months later, in the Revolutionary month of Thermidor ( July), the majority of Robespierre's Jacobin party surprised and guillotined him. Once again, De Gouges had been ahead of events.

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