Gouges, Olympe de (1748–1793)

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Gouges, Olympe de (1748–1793)

French playwright and political writer who advocated legal and political equality for women during the French Revolution. Name variations: Marie-Olympe de Gouges; Marie Gouze; Marie Gouze Gouges; though she never used her married name Aubry, she was indicted under it in 1793. Pronunciation; OH-lemp de GOOZE. Born Marie Gouze in Montauban, in southwestern France, in 1748; executed for crimes against the state in Paris on November 3, 1793; daughter of Pierre Gouze (a butcher) and Anne-Olympe Mouisset; married Louis-Yves Aubry, in 1765; children: Pierre (b. 1766).

Lived as a courtesan in Paris (1770s); began literary career (1780); anti-slavery play accepted by the Comédie Française (1784); The Loves of Chérubin performed successfully at the Théâtre Italien (1786); Slavery of Negroes (Zamour et Myrza ou l'heureau naufrage) performed by the Comédie Française, causing an uproar (1789); sent Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne (Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen) with a cover letter to Marie Antoinette (1791); appeared before the legislature in support of un pauvre ("a poor man") who was voted relief (1792); defended King Louis XVI in a letter to the National Convention (December 1792); wrote The Three Urns, attacking Robespierre; arrested for sedition (July 1793); tried and executed by guillotine, according to her obituary, "for sedition and for having forgotten the virtues which befit her sex" (November 1793).

On October 5, 1789, a crowd of women gathered at the City Hall in Paris. Angered by the rising cost of bread and King Louis XVI's refusal to remedy the situation, they demanded help from the National Guard and, armed with broomsticks, lances, pitchforks, swords, pistols, and muskets, marched 20 miles to the king's palace at Versailles. En route, they were joined by more women, and by the time they reached their destination their numbers had swelled to between eight and ten thousand. At Versailles, they confronted the king with demands for bread and security for Paris. Louis XVI hesitated for some hours until the impatient crowd invaded the palace, killed two royal guards, and demanded that the royal family return with them to Paris. He finally agreed and, accompanied by a joyous throng of women, was taken back to Paris where he and his family took up residence in the royal palace at the Tuileries.

The march to Versailles marked an early turning point in the French Revolution and, more important, signaled the politicization of French women. Traditionally, women were believed to be inferior to men and these ideas were perpetuated by members of the 18th-century French intelligentsia, known as philosophes. The writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in particular, encouraged the belief that women's role in society was dominated by their duty towards men. Rousseau concluded that women were born to please men and, thus, should remain at home to tend their husband's children and his household. In this cozy domestic world there was no need for women to be educated in anything other than traditional female duties. Any woman who dared to relate to men as their intellectual or cultural equal was severely criticized. Above all, women were not supposed to become involved in political affairs. This ideological glorification of women's domesticity was also reflected in law. While women from the aristocratic classes held some legal rights, the vast majority of women were legally subordinate to their husbands. Married women were legal minors under their husband's guardianship, and unmarried women were subject to their father's authority.

The upheavals caused by the French Revolution, however, initiated a new role for women in French society; one which was a direct challenge to Rousseau's ideal of the meek and subservient female. Working-class women met on the streets, in cafes, at the market, and in breadlines where they discussed the latest developments in the revolutionary struggle. They became outspoken, demanding that their concerns be heard. They shouted and disrupted national legislatures and assemblies, circulated petitions, insulted local and national magistrates, and participated in food riots. Educated women made demands for political and legal equality. One of the most outstanding advocates for the rights of women during the French Revolution was Olympe de Gouges.

Born Marie Gouze near Montauban in 1748, she was the daughter of Pierre Gouze, a butcher, and Anne-Olympe Mouisset . In later years, Olympe claimed that the man who was her real father was a noble, the Marquis Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pomignan (d. 1784). Very little is known of her youth except that she was married at age 17 to Louis-Yves Aubry and gave birth to a son, also named Pierre. A few years later, after her husband's death, she changed her name to Olympe de Gouges and moved to Paris where she planned to launch a literary career even though she had little formal education. Exceptionally beautiful, vivacious and intelligent, she soon captured the hearts of many young men and had a series of love affairs. She adored being the center of attention and spent most of the money that she earned as a courtesan on expensive clothes, extravagant entertainment, and numerous pets. She surrounded herself with a menagerie of animals, including monkeys and dogs, all of which were given the names of important figures from the past. De Gouges believed in the transmigration of souls and thus saw her pets as former human beings who were now serving out their time on earth as animals.

A woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must also have the right to mount the rostrum.

—Olympe de Gouges

Her ambition to become a literary star was punctuated by innumerable attempts throughout the 1780s to have several of her plays produced and performed at the Comédie Française. Although she wrote over 30 plays, only one was ever performed successfully. Zamour et Myrza ou l'heureau naufrage, a work which attacked slavery, was produced in 1789 but was canceled after only three performances largely due to protestations from French colonists. After this disaster, de Gouges abandoned the stage and began writing pamphlets and brochures on a variety of social, political, and economic topics.

Between 1790 and 1793, Olympe de Gouges wrote and published more than two dozen pamphlets many of which had feminist overtones. Among the social reforms she advocated were workshops for the unemployed, poor relief, education for women, improved conditions in maternity hospitals, and the creation of a second national theater where only plays written by women would be performed. Unfortunately, many of her pamphlets were poorly written and hastily constructed which, combined with her appalling spelling, led many critics to dismiss her concerns. More important, however, was the fact that she was a woman who was engaged in a traditionally male-dominated activity. De Gouges acknowledged the double standard imposed upon her as a woman writer when she observed: "I put forward a hundred propositions; they are received; but I am a woman; no one pays any attention."

Nonetheless, in 1791, she wrote what became her most famous work, The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. Divided into four sections (dedication, challenge to the men of the French Revolution, 17 articles, and a postscript), the Declaration was a political manifesto which recast the ideals of the revolution so that gender became the central issue.

In the dedication, which is addressed to Louis XVI's queen, Marie Antoinette , de Gouges encourages her to support the emancipation of women: "This revolution will happen only when all women are aware of their deplorable fate, and of the rights they have lost in society. Madame, support such a beautiful cause; defend this unfortunate sex, and soon you will have half the realm on your side." In the second section, Olympe criticizes her male co-revolutionaries: "Man, are you capable of being just? It is a woman who poses the question; you will not deprive her of that right at least. Tell me, what gives you sovereign empire to oppress my sex?" In nature, she observes, the sexes mingle and "cooperate in harmonious togetherness." Men, however, desire to rule as despots over women.

The third and longest section of the Declaration is patterned directly after the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and frequently paraphrases its language. Unlike the earlier manifesto, however, de Gouges' Declaration proclaims the incontestable rights of women: "Woman is born free and lives equal to man in her rights. Social distinctions can be based only on the common utility… [the] rights of woman and man… are liberty, property, security, and especially resistance to oppression." In Article VI, de Gouges demands for women not only the right to vote but that they be admitted to "all honors, positions, and public employment according to their capacity and without other distinctions besides those of their virtues and talents." She states that women are not to be given any special treatment under the law and, in Article X, she proclaims, prophetically, that since women have the right to mount the scaffold, they should be given the right to mount the rostrum. Influenced perhaps by her own claim to noble birth and the taint of illegitimacy, she demanded that women be given the right to name the father of their children. As fully legal citizens, de Gouges concluded that women should pay the same taxes as men and, in return, be given their fair share "in the distribution of positions, employment, offices, honors, and jobs." Likewise, women should have an equal share in public administration and in drafting the constitution. In the fourth and final section, Olympe pleaded for a unified revolutionary struggle. Acknowledging the subordination of women in marriage, she drew up a sample marriage contract which secured property rights for women and children, especially when marriages were dissolved.

Despite its revolutionary potential, the Declaration fell on deaf ears. Never being content to remain out of the limelight for long, Olympe de Gouges next attracted public attention when she defended the king at his trial for treason in December 1792. The events leading up to the king's trial began the previous year. In 1791, the Legislative Assembly passed a new Constitution which established a limited monarchy. Louis XVI, however, did not approve of the constraints on his authority, and, in June, he attempted to flee the country. The royal family succeeded in making it to the border but were recognized and forced to return to Paris where virtually all of the king's authority was suspended. In April 1792, the government declared war on Austria in the hopes that the ideals of Revolution would spread throughout Europe as well as be consolidated in France. The war, however, proceeded badly for the French, and the defeats of the army, coupled with economic shortages, led to renewed political demonstrations in which the king became the prime target. This dissatisfaction culminated on August 10, 1792, when an angry mob attacked the royal palace, took the king captive, and forced the Legislative Assembly to suspend the monarchy. Louis XVI's fate was sealed on September 21 when the National Convention, as the new government was now called, abolished the monarchy and established a republic.

Throughout the early years of the Revolution, Olympe de Gouges wavered between royalist sympathies and republican tendencies. Until the king's aborted escape attempt, she had supported the constitutional monarchy, but, after the events of August 10, she welcomed the creation of a republic. Her thirst for notoriety, however, and tendency, as she herself noted, "to range myself on the side of the feeble and oppressed," led her to come to the defense of the king. In a letter submitted to the Convention, she presented her argument in a straightforward manner; a distinction should be made between the man and the king. "He was weak; he let himself be deceived; he deceived us; he deceived himself. That, in a nutshell, is the case against him." She pleaded for his life and warned the government leaders against bringing disgrace upon themselves by making him into a martyr as the English had done 150 years before when they executed Charles I.

Her efforts on the king's behalf were dismissed outright by the Convention, and she was ridiculed in the press. One journalist exclaimed: "Who does she think she is to meddle in such things? Why doesn't she knit trousers for our brave sans-culottes instead?" Ridicule turned to violence when an angry mob gathered in front of her house demanding that she come down to face them. Exhibiting a courage which was typical of her personality, she met them coolly even though they began to handle her roughly. When the leader proceeded to stage a mock auction for the price of her head, she kept her composure and diffused the situation by placing the first bid. Laughing, the mob let her return home peacefully.

On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI was executed and most of Europe declared war against France. Once again, the French army suffered defeat abroad which led to fears of foreign invasion and counter-revolution at home. Repressive legislation was increased, and in April 1793 the Convention set up a Committee of Public Safety. The Committee, which was eventually controlled by Maximilien Robespierre, established the "Reign of Terror" in which enemies of the revolutionary Republic were identified as those "who either by their conduct, their contacts, their words or their writings, showed themselves to be supporters of tyranny or enemies of liberty [or] those who have not constantly manifested their attachment to the Revolution." Many royalists, including Queen Marie Antoinette, as well as aristocrats and peasants, were officially executed over the next nine months.

Despite the obvious danger, de Gouges wrote invectives against the Terror throughout the summer of 1793 and against Robespierre whom she called an "insect" and "the egotistical abomination" of the Revolution. She also published a new broadsheet, Les trois urnes (The Three Urns), in which she proposed a national referendum to decide the best form of government for France. Three choices were offered: Republican government, Federal government, and a monarchy.

Since the death of Louis XVI, however, a resurrection of the monarchy was hopelessly out of date. Likewise, Federalism was anathema to the majority of government members. Undaunted, de Gouges attempted to have the broadsheet posted around Paris. The billposter, however, alarmed by its contents, refused to post it and instead informed the authorities. Olympe de Gouges was arrested on July 20, 1793, and taken to the prison of L'Abbaye. Even while she was in prison, she maintained her criticism of the government by smuggling out a series of protests in which she denounced her persecutors.

De Gouges was accused of undermining the Republic through seditious writings and was brought to trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal on November 1, 1793. The prosecution was harsh in its indictment: "There can be no mistaking the perfidious intentions of this criminal woman and her hidden motives, when one observes her in all the works to which, at the very least, she lends her name, calumniating and spewing out bile in large doses against the warmest friends of the people." De Gouges conducted her own defense and infuriated the Tribunal by shrugging her shoulders, smiling at the spectators, and raising her eyes towards the ceiling when the charges against her were read out. The eloquence of her defense was preserved in a "Political Testament" which she wrote during her imprisonment and which was tacked on walls throughout Paris. In this broadsheet, she reiterated her patriotism and the disgust she felt towards the proponents of the Terror: "Men deranged by passions, what have you done and what incalculable evils are you perpetrating on Paris and on the whole of France? You are risking everything." Acknowledging that her death was inevitable, she proceeded to list her bequests:

I will my heart to the nation, my integrity to men (they have need of it). To women, I will my soul; my creative spirit to dramatic artists; my disinterestedness to the ambitious; my philosophy to those who are persecuted; my intelligence to all fanatics; my religion to atheists; my gaiety to women on the decline; and all the poor remains of an honest fortune to my son, if he survives me.

The jury reached a unanimous verdict: "Olympe de Gouges is proven guilty of being the author of these writings and… [is] condemned to the punishment of death." In a last attempt to save her life, she declared that she was pregnant. Two doctors and a midwife were brought in to examine her and found her claim to be false. On the night before her execution, she wrote a final letter to her son Pierre. "I die, my son, the victim of my idolatry of my country and of the people. Their enemies, beneath the specious mask of republicanism, have led me remorselessly to the scaffold." On November 3, 1793, sentence of death was confirmed against 45-year-old Olympe de Gouges. Outspoken to the last, as she mounted the platform to the guillotine, she cried out: "Children of the Fatherland, you will avenge my death."

Her forthright behavior and refusal to adopt prescribed feminine behavior led one of the leading revolutionary newspapers to conclude in her obituary that Olympe de Gouges was not only guilty of sedition but also "for having forgotten the virtues which befit her sex." Her death was one of a series of repressive measures which the government adopted in order to curb the political activities of women. By the end of 1793, women's political clubs were outlawed, and in the next year women were banned from attending any public meetings and from assembling in groups. Eleven years later, the Napoleonic Code reasserted women's subordination in marriage and reduced their civil status to that of a minor. The voice of Olympe de Gouges, however, was never silenced, and her vision of equal rights for women has provided inspiration for those working to establish a more just and humane world.

sources:

Kelly, Linda. Women of the French Revolution. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987.

Levy, D.G., H.B. Applewhite, and M.D. Johnson. Women in Revolutionary Paris, 1789–1795. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1980.

Mannin, Ethel. Women and the Revolution. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1939.

suggested reading:

Gutwirth, Madelyn. The Twilight of the Goddesses: Women and Representation in the French Revolutionary Era. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

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

Proctor, Candice. Women, Equality, and the French Revolution. NY: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Margaret McIntyre , Instructor of Women's History, Trent University, Peterborough, Canada

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