Gouges, Olympe de 1748–1793

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Gouges, Olympe de

In one of her most famous passages, Olympe de Gouges declared that "Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum." (Landes 1988, p. 126). The French feminist pushed her way to the rostrum of pubic visibility; she ended on the scaffold, under the blade of the revolutionary guillotine.

Born as Marie Gouze, the legally recognized child of a bourgeois couple in the southern French town of Montauban, the future Olympe believed (as did others) that her true father was a minor nobleman. The young woman took from this a sense of entitlement to escape the traditional life of a provincial bourgeoisie. Married against her wishes in 1765 she effectively liberated herself after the death of her husband and took the name Olympe de Gouges.

De Gouges moved to Paris where she cohabited with a well-off entrepreneur who supported her literary and social ambitions. De Gouges wrote numerous plays (some were performed) and received invitations to the most forward-looking salons.

An ardent supporter of the Revolution (which began in 1789), Citizen de Gouges remained a defender of the constitutional monarchy that was officially established in 1791. Her moderate royalist predilections seemed even to survive the unpopularity of the monarchs. De Gouges publicly offered to defend the King Louis XVI (r. 1774–1792) in his trial for treason; and her most famous treatise on women's rights was dedicated to Marie Antoinette (1755–1793) after the queen's disgrace (though before her trial and execution).

In the politics of the Revolution de Gouges worked most closely with the moderate Republicans of the Girondist movement. The more radical Jacobins were less sympathetic to women's rights and the whole symbolic world of the feminine and were not above making misogynist attacks in their polemics against the Girondists and other opponents. In July 1793, as civil war threatened to combine with foreign conflict, de Gouges publicly proposed that each French department have the right to choose its own form of government. The ruling Jacobins had recently made the unity and indivisibility of the Republic a law and any challenge to it a capital crime. Denounced almost immediately de Gouges was tried, convicted, and guillotined in November, taking her place among a growing number of Girondist and royalist victims of the Jacobin Terror.

Though she wrote plays as a means of popular political education, de Gouges's most famous work is her 1791 Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne [Declaration of the rights of woman and the female citizen] (2003), a clear reply to the French Revolution's famous "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen." As did her contemporary, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), de Gouges sought to extend the notion of the equality of man to women and use the universality of reason as its chief justification. The constitutional monarchy of 1791 divided French people on the basis of property between active and passive citizens and then relegated all women to the status of passive citizens. The more radical Republican constitution of 1792 only exacerbated this difference by giving political rights to all men (but only to them). Complicating the problems for women's rights advocates was the reputation of the Old Regime as a government of women, through the (much exaggerated) influence of mistresses and of salonnières.

De Gouges called for full political equality for women (who would have their own co-equal national assembly), equality in marriage and divorce, and the right of women to publicly name the fathers of their children. Deceiving men could also be compelled to compensate the women they had exploited, as well as support their offspring. As with other radicals of the age, de Gouges firmly condemned African slavery and any form of racial discrimination, linking this cause with that of women, who were also victims of a form of commerce.


De Gouges, Olympe. 2003. Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne [Declaration of the rights of woman and the female citizen]. Paris: Mille et Une Nuits. (Orig. pub. 1791.)

Landes, Joan B. 1988. Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

                                              Allen Douglas

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Gouges, Olympe de 1748–1793

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