During the French Revolution of 1789, almost 400 women were executed by the guillotine. The most famous among them is, of course, Marie Antoinette; however, aside from the queen, another relevant female figure who died for her ideals is Olympe de Gouges. Playwright and political activist, she advocated for the emancipation of women and against slavery in a moment of great social transformation and uncertainty. She is mostly known for having written The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, where she criticized the French revolutionaries for not having considered women in their fight for equality. Her progressive ideas and stances in favor of women´s rights make her one of the very first feminists in the modern era.
She was born under the name of Marie Gouze in 1748 in Montauban, a small village in the South of France. At the age of 16, she was married against her will to a local caterer and gave birth to a child. After her husband´s death, occurred two years after the wedding, she moved to Paris with her son, changed her name and vowed never to marry again, deeming the institution of marriage “the tomb of trust and love”.
In Paris, she was welcomed by the intellectuals of the pre-Revolutionary era and chose the theatre as preferential tool to express her views of the world. In her first play, called The Slavery of the Blacks, she fiercely condemned France´s politics towards their colonies, denouncing the economics behind slavery and supporting its abolition. She became target of threats, both by the slavers and by people who thought that a woman´s proper place was not in the theatre. But Olympe was defiant, and after gaining notoriety, she started publishing articles and political pamphlets, where she pressed for the legalization of divorce and the establishment of obstetrics wards in order to reduce maternal mortality in childbirth.
De Gouges greeted the outbreak of the Revolution with hope and joy, but soon became disenchanted when égalité (equal rights) was not extended to women. The French Constitution ratified in 1791 gave the right to vote to “all citizens”, but defined citizens as men over 25 who paid taxes. Women were by definition not accorded any political right. It is in this context that Olympe convinced herself to take a stand once again, embodied in her well known statement: “A woman is entitled to mount the scaffold; she must be equally entitled to mount the rostrum [of the National Assembly]”. In response to the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted by the French National Constituent Assembly in 1789, she then published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, mirroring all the provision of the former document in the feminine form and explaining that women, just as men, are guaranteed natural, inalienable, sacred rights.
The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen not only did assert 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. Attached to the Declaration was also the text of a “Social Contract” between a man and a woman that was meant to replace the institution of marriage, and to establish a civil partnership based upon gender equality. By these two texts, De Gouges hoped to expose the failures of the leaders of the revolution in recognizing gender equality properly.
The Declaration immediately angered many of the radicals of the Revolution, who suspected De Gouges of treason for dedicating the text to Queen Marie Antoinette, whom she described as “the most detested” of women in France. She was sentenced to execution by the guillotine, and was claimed by the Reign of Terror to be one of the many political enemies to the state of France.
However, De Gouges´ ideals did not die with her. The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen was widely reproduced and influenced the writings of women´s advocates in the Western world. One year after its publication, in 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published Vindication of the Rights of Woman, inspired by Olympe´s work. The ideas she embraced – including 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 societies.
Her last words as she walked up to the guillotine were: “Children of the fatherland, you will avenge my death!”. 224 years after her death, in 2016, she was the first woman to have her sculpture installed inside the National Assembly of France, among the other remarkable figures of the history of her Country.
By Valentina Canepa, WAVE Intern