Olympe de Gouges

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Olympe de Gouges
Born (1748-05-07)7 May 1748
Montauban, Guyenne-and-Gascony, Kingdom of France
Died 3 November 1793(1793-11-03) (aged 45)
Place de la Révolution, Paris, French First Republic
Occupation Activist, abolitionist, feminist, playwright
Spouse(s) Louis Aubry (1765-1766)
Children General Pierre Aubry de Gouges

Olympe de Gouges (French: [olɛ̃p də ɡuʒ] (About this sound listen); 7 May 1748 – 3 November 1793), born Marie Gouze, was a French playwright and political activist whose feminist and abolitionist writings reached a large audience.

She began her career as a playwright in the early 1780s. As political tension rose in France, Olympe de Gouges became increasingly politically engaged. She became an outspoken advocate for improving the condition of slaves in the colonies of 1788. At the same time, she began writing political pamphlets. Today she is perhaps best known as an early feminist who demanded that French women be given the same rights as French men. In her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791), she challenged the practice of male authority and the notion of male-female inequality. She was executed by guillotine during the Reign of Terror for attacking the regime of the Revolutionary government and for her close relation with the Girondists.


Marie Gouze was born into a petit bourgeois family in 1748 in Montauban, Quercy (in the present-day department of Tarn-et-Garonne), in southwestern France. She believed that she was the illegitimate daughter of Jean-Jacques Lefranc, Marquis de Pompignan, and his rejection of her claims upon him may have influenced her passionate defense of the rights of illegitimate children.[1]

In 1765 she married Louis Aubry, a caterer, who came from Paris with the new Intendant of the town. This was not a marriage of love. Gouze said in a semi-autobiographical novel (Mémoire de Madame de Valmont contre la famille de Flaucourt), "I was married to a man I did not love and who was neither rich nor well-born. I was sacrificed for no reason that could make up for the repugnance I felt for this man."[2] Her husband died a year later, and in 1770 she moved to Paris with her son, Pierre, and took the name Olympe de Gouges.[1]

Olympe de Gouges

In 1773, according to her biographer Olivier Blanc, she met a wealthy man, Jacques Biétrix de Rozières, with whom she had a long relationship that ended during the revolution. She was received in the artistic and philosophical salons, where she met many writers, including La Harpe, Mercier, and Chamfort, as well as future politicians such as Brissot and Condorcet. She usually was invited to the salons of Madame de Montesson and the Comtesse de Beauharnais, who also were playwrights. She also was associated with Masonic Lodges, among them the Loge des Neuf Sœurs that was created by her friend Michel de Cubières.

In 1784, the year that her putative biological father died, she began her career as a public intellectual, and over the remaining nine years of her life she wrote some forty works–essays, manifestos, literary treatises, political pamphlets, and socially conscious plays.

In 1784, she wrote the anti-slavery play Zamore and Mirza. For several reasons, the play was not performed until 1789. Gouges published it, however, as Zamore et Mirza, ou l'heureux naufrage ("Zamore and Mirza, or the happy shipwreck") in 1788. It was performed as L'Esclavage des nègres ("Slavery of the negroes") in December 1789, but shut down after three performances. Subsequently, it was published in 1792 under the title L'Esclavage des noirs.[3]

She also wrote on such gender-related topics as the right of divorce, and argued in favor of sexual relations outside of marriage.[citation needed]

As an epilogue to the 1788 version of her play Zamore et Mirza, she published Réflexions sur les hommes nègres ("Reflections on the negroes"). In 1790 she wrote a play, Le Marché des Noirs ("The Black Market"), which was rejected by the Comédie Française; the text was burned after her death. In 1808 the Abbé Grégoire included her on his list of the courageous people who pleaded the cause of "les nègres."

A passionate advocate of human rights, Olympe 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.

In 1791, she became part of the Society of the Friends of Truth, also called the "Social Club," an association with the goal of equal political and legal rights for women. Members sometimes gathered at the home of the well-known women's rights advocate, Sophie de Condorcet. Here Gouges expressed, for the first time, her famous statement, "A woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker's platform." {The Declaration of the Rights of Women}

That same year, in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, she wrote the Déclaration des droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne ("Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen"). This was followed by her Contrat Social ("Social Contract," named after a famous work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau), proposing marriage based upon gender equality.[4]

She became involved in almost any matter she believed to involve injustice. She opposed the execution of Louis XVI of France, partly out of opposition to capital punishment and partly because she preferred a relatively tame and living king to the possibility of a rebel regency in exile. This earned her the ire of many hard-line republicans, even into the next generation—such as the 19th-century historian Jules Michelet, a fierce apologist for the Revolution, who wrote, "She allowed herself to act and write about more than one affair that her weak head did not understand."[5] Michelet opposed any political participation by women and thus disliked Gouges.[6] In December 1792, when Louis XVI was about to be put on trial, she wrote to the National Assembly offering to defend him, causing outrage among many deputies. In her letter she argued that he had been duped–that he was guilty as a king, but innocent as a man, and that he should be exiled rather than executed. The deputies ignored her offer.[7]

Political affiliation[edit]

Olympe de Gouges advocated for women's rights, which at the time seemed radical and hence perfect for the Revolution. Although her beliefs fit in with the Revolution, not all of the Revolution's theories fit in with her ideology. For instance, Olympe de Gouges opposed the extermination of the monarchical government. The Revolution wanted to oust the monarchy, while Gouges favored keeping it in place. Gouges revered both King Louis XVI and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette. Her political views were detailed in her pamphlets. Her earliest political pamphlet, Letters to the People (1788), describes Louis as an all-powerful king and "like a father whose affairs have become distressed; for his children, it is a simple matter of honour and love as well as respect to fly willingly to the aid of this unfortunate father."[8] While King Louis XVI is a misunderstood father, Marie Antoinette is a noble woman. Gouges goes on to predict that the Queen would renounce her lavish lifestyle for the public welfare during the financial crisis. She wants to keep the monarchy, despite the fact that the Revolution's main goal was to overthrow the king and install a new form of government—a republic. Gouges repeatedly defended the King and Queen during the October days; when they tried to escape Paris but were stopped in Varennes-en-Argonne; and during the Diamond Necklace scandal, for which many historians have acquitted Marie, though at the time she was regarded as guilty. Many women and men living in Paris viewed Marie Antoinette as the cause of their woes. Yet Gouges defended her and dedicated the preface of the Declaration of Rights of Women to Marie. The preface is titled "To the Queen." In it, Gouges claims that since the inception of the Revolution she had taken up the queen's defense. Gouges implores the queen to endorse her cause for women's rights and signs off as her "very humble and very obedient servant."[8]

Arrest and execution[edit]

Les trois urnes, the 1793 poster by Olympe de Gouges that led to her arrest and execution
The execution of Olympe de Gouges

As the Revolution progressed, she became more and more vehement in her writings. On 2 June 1793, the Jacobins arrested her allies, the Girondins, imprisoned them, and sent them to the guillotine in October. Finally, her poster Les trois urnes, ou le salut de la Patrie, par un voyageur aérien ("The Three Urns, or the Salvation of the Fatherland, by an Aerial Traveller") of 1793, led to her arrest. That piece demanded a plebiscite for a choice among three potential forms of government: the first, unitary republic, the second, a federalist government, or the third, a constitutional monarchy.

After she was arrested, the commissioners searched her house for evidence. When they could not find any in her home, she voluntarily led them to the storehouse where she kept her papers. It was there that the commissioners found an unfinished play titled La France Sauvée ou le Tyran Détroné ("France Preserved, or The Tyrant Dethroned"). In the first act (only the first act and a half remain), Marie-Antoinette is planning defence strategies to retain the crumbling monarchy and is confronted by revolutionary forces, including Gouges herself. The first act ends with Gouges reproving the queen for having seditious intentions and lecturing her about how she should lead her people. Both Gouges and her prosecutor used this play as evidence in her trial. The prosecutor claimed that Olympe's depictions of the queen threatened to stir up sympathy and support for the Royalists, whereas Gouges stated that the play showed that she had always been a supporter of the Revolution.[9]

She spent three months in jail without an attorney, trying to defend herself. The presiding judge denied Gouges her legal right to a lawyer on the grounds that she was more than capable of representing herself. It seems as though the judge based this argument on Gouges's tendency to represent herself in her writings.[9] Through her friends, she managed to publish two texts: Olympe de Gouges au tribunal révolutionnaire ("Olympe de Gouges at the Revolutionary tribunal"), in which she related her interrogations; and her last work, Une patriote persécutée ("A [female] patriot persecuted"), in which she condemned the Terror. The Jacobins sentenced her to death on 3 November 1793, and she was executed the following day for seditious behavior and attempting to reinstate the monarchy.[9] Olympe was executed only a month after Condorcet had been proscribed, and just three days after the Girondin leaders had been guillotined. Her body was disposed of in the Madeleine Cemetery.

Olympe's last moments were depicted by an anonymous Parisian who kept a chronicle of events:

Yesterday, at seven o'clock in the evening, a most extraordinary person called Olympe de Gouges who held the imposing title of woman of letters, was taken to the scaffold, while all of Paris, while admiring her beauty, knew that she didn't even know her alphabet.... She approached the scaffold with a calm and serene expression on her face, and forced the guillotine's furies, which had driven her to this place of torture, to admit that such courage and beauty had never been seen before.... That woman... had thrown herself in the Revolution, body and soul. But having quickly perceived how atrocious the system adopted by the Jacobins was, she chose to retrace her steps. She attempted to unmask the villains through the literary productions which she had printed and put up. They never forgave her, and she paid for her carelessness with her head."[10]


Pierre Aubry de Gouges

After her death, says Olivier Blanc,[11] her son General Pierre Aubry de Gouges went to Guyana with his wife and five children. He died in 1802, after which his widow attempted to return to France, but died aboard the ship during her return. In Guadeloupe, the two young daughters were married, Marie Hyacinthe Geneviève de Gouges to an English officer (Captain William Wood), who subsequently settled in Tasmania, and Charlotte de Gouges to American politician Robert Selden Garnett, a member of the United States Congress who had plantations in Virginia. Hence, many Australian and American families have Olympe de Gouges as an ancestor (per Olivier Blanc).[11]

On 6 March 2004, the junction of the Rues Béranger, Charlot, de Turenne, and de Franche-Comté in Paris was proclaimed the Place Olympe de Gouges. The square was inaugurated by the mayor of the 3rd arrondissement, Pierre Aidenbaum, along with the first deputy mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. The actress Véronique Genest read an excerpt from the Declaration of the Rights of Woman.

2007 French presidential contender Ségolène Royal expressed the wish that Gouges' remains be moved to the Panthéon. However, her remains—like those of the other victims of the Reign of Terror—have been lost through burial in communal graves, so any reburial (like that of Condorcet) would be only ceremonial.


Olympe de Gouges wrote her famous Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen shortly after the French constitution of 1791 was created in the same year. She was alarmed that the constitution, which was to promote equal suffrage, did not address—nor even consider—women’s suffrage. The Constitution gave that right only to men. It also did not address key issues such as legal equality in marriage, the right of a woman to divorce her spouse if he abused her, or a woman’s right to property and custody of the children. So she created a document that was to be, in her opinion, the missing part of the Constitution of 1791, in which women would be given the equal rights they deserve. Throughout the document, it is apparent to the reader that Gouges had been influenced by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, whose thinkers, using "scientific reasoning," critically examined and criticized the traditional morals and institutions of the day.

Gouges opens up her Declaration with a witty, and at times sarcastically bitter, introduction in which she asks men why they have chosen to subjugate women as a lesser sex. Her opening statement put rather bluntly: "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." The latter part of the statement shows her assertion that men have been absurdly depriving women of what should be common rights, so she sarcastically asks if men will find it necessary to take away even her right to question. Gouges begins her long argument by stating that in nature the sexes are forever mingled, cooperating in "harmonious togetherness." There she uses Enlightenment logic: if in nature the equality and the cooperation of the two sexes achieves harmony, so should France achieve a happier and more stable society if women are given equality among men.

After her opening paragraph she proceeds to her declaration, which she asks be reviewed and decreed by the National Assembly in their next meeting. Her preamble explains that contemporary public misfortune and corrupt government are due to the oppression of women and their rights. The happiness and well-being of society would only be insured once the rights of women were equally important as those of men, especially in political institutions. In her document Gouges establishes the rights of women on the basis of their equality to men: that they are both human and capable of the same thoughts. Gouges also promotes the rights of women by emphasizing differences women have to men–differences that men ought to respect and take notice of. She argues that women are superior in beauty as well as in courage during childbirth. Addressing characteristics that set women apart from men, she adds what she probably thought was logical proof to her argument that men are not superior to women, and therefore, women are deserving at least of the same rights.

Her declaration bears the same outline and context as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, but Gouges either changes the word "man" to "woman" or adds "for both women and men." In article II, the resemblance is exact to the previous declaration except that she adds "especially" before "the right to the resistance of oppression," emphasizing again how important it is to end the oppression of women, and that the government should recognize this and take action.

A main difference between the two declarations is that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen emphasizes the protection of the written "law" while the Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen emphasizes protection of the "law" and "Natural Laws." Gouges emphasizes that these rights of women always have existed, that they were created at the beginning of time by God, that they are natural and true, and they cannot be oppressed.

Article X contains the famous phrase: "Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum." If women have the right to be executed, they should have the right to speak.

Article XI of the Declarations of the Rights of Man and the Citizen states that the most precious right of man is the free communication of speech and ideas. Gouges states that freedom of speech is just as precious for a woman because it helps to impose a father's responsibility for his children.[12] According to Gouges, this article serves to protect illegitimate children and their mothers and prevents them from being taken advantage of. Gouges urges that women speak up against the father of their children if he tries to abandon them. This article resonates personally with Gouges in that she claimed that she was an illegitimate child. In addition, a woman has the right to give her children the name of their father even if they be out of wedlock or the father has left her.

In her postscript, Gouges exhorts women to wake up and discover that they have these rights. She assures them that reason is on their side. Gouges asks, "What have women gained from the French Revolution?" She states that the answer is nothing, except to be marked with yet more disdain. She exclaims that women should no longer tolerate this, but they should step up, take action, and demand the equal rights they deserve. Gouges calls the notion that women are lesser beings an "out-of-date" concept. In this, she shows strongly her Enlightenment perspective—to break from old, illogical traditions that are now archaic. She asserts that to revoke women's right to partake in political life is also "out-of-date." Gouges contends that any law or custom that robs a woman of her right to property, speech, or employment is counterrevolutionary.[13]

Her last paragraph is titled a "Social Contract between Men and Women." Taking a leaf from Rousseau’s book, the contract asks for communal cooperation. The wealth of a husband and wife should be distributed equally. Property should belong to both and to the children, whatever bed they come from. If the husband and wife are divorced, their land should be divided equally. She called this the "marriage contract." Gouges also proposed allowing a poor man’s wife to have her children adopted by a wealthy family; this would advance the community’s wealth and reduce disorder. Near the end of the contract, Gouges requests creation of a law to protect widows and girls from men who make false promises. This, perhaps, is the most important issue she deals with in France. In the postscript section, Gouges describes the consequences for women who are left by an unfaithful husband or who are widowed with no fortune to their name, and those of young, inexperienced girls who are seduced by men who leave them with no money and no title for their children. Gouges demands a law that will force an unfaithful or unscrupulous man to fulfill his obligations to such a woman, or to at least to pay a reimbursement equal to his wealth.

One of the last arguments in her document is directed to men who still see women as lesser beings: "the foolproof way to evaluate the soul of women is to join them to all the activities of man; if man persists against this, let him share his fortune with woman by the wisdom of the laws." She challenges men that, if they wish, they may evaluate scientifically the consequences of joining man and woman in equal political rights.

Unfortunately, the National Assembly did not pass the Declaration of the Rights of Woman. As a result of their negligence, sins of omission turned into sins of commission during the Reign of Terror when the Jacobins closed down multiple women's political clubs in 1793. During that same year, Marie Antoinette and Gouges were guillotined within less than a month of each other (16 October, 3 November); other prominent women such as Madame du Barry (7 December) and Madame Roland (8 November) were also guillotined that year. Gouges' work was taken for granted at the cost of her life.

She wrote numerous other works. The website olympedegouges.eu provides translations of many of her pamphlets, summarizing:

"Denied a place in the powerful circles of her day she found her political voice by writing an astonishing number of pamphlets and posters that she freely disseminated around Paris. Her texts chart her battles against injustice and inequality, her belief that solidarity and cooperation should predominate, her hatred of dictatorships and the corrupting influence of power, her profound pacifism, her respect for humankind, her love of nature, and, of course, her desire that women be allowed a worthwhile role in society. She pleaded against slavery and the death penalty, dreamt of a more equal society and proposed intelligent taxation plans to enable wealth to be more fairly divided. She called for a form of welfare state, trial by jury, and reasonable divorce laws to protect women and children from penury. Believing in the power of drama to encourage political change she wrote several plays that ingeniously highlight contemporary concerns."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Paul, Pauline (1989-06-02). "I Foresaw it All: The Amazing Life and Oeuvre of Olympe de Gouges". Die Zeit. Translated by Kai Artur Diers.  (also see Olympe de Gouges, a Daughter of Quercy on her Way to the Panthéon Archived 19 October 2004 at the Wayback Machine. on Quercy.net)
  2. ^ Noack, Paul (1992). Olympe de Gouges, 1748–1793: Kurtisane und Kampferin für die Rechte der Frau [Olympe de Gouges, 1748–1793: Courtesan and Activist for Women's Rights] (in German). Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag. p. 31. ISBN 978-3-423-30319-4. 
  3. ^ Chalaye, Sylvie. L'Esclavage des nègres, L'Harmattan 2006.
  4. ^ Chronicle of the French Revolution, Longman, 1989 p.235
  5. ^ J. Michelet, La Révolution Française.
  6. ^ See Charles Monselet, Les Oubliés et les Dédaignés [The Forgotten and the Scorned]. See also Joan Scott in Rebel Daughters.
  7. ^ Chronicle of the French Revolution, Longman 1989 p.311
  8. ^ a b Cole, John (2011). Between the Queen and Cabby. McGill-Queen's University Press. pp. 28–29. ISBN 978-0773538863. 
  9. ^ a b c Vanpée, Janie (March 1999). "Performing Justice: The Trials of Olympe de Gouges". Theatre Journal. 51 (1): 47–65. doi:10.1353/tj.1999.0018. JSTOR 25068623. 
  10. ^ Mousset, Sophie (2007). Women's Rights and the French Revolution: A Biography of Olympe de Gouges. New Brunswick (U.S.A.) & London (U.K.): Transaction Publishers. p. 99. ISBN 978-0-7658-0345-0. 
  11. ^ a b Blanc, Olivier (2003). Marie-Olympe de Gouges (in French). Paris: Editions René Viénet. 
  12. ^ Beckstrand, Lisa (2009). Deviant Women of the French Revolution and the Rise of Feminism. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. p. 91. ISBN 9781611474008. 
  13. ^ Proctor, Candice E. (1990). Women, Equality, and the French Revolution. Praeger. p. 122. ISBN 9780313272455. 

External links[edit]

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