A Woman for All Seasons: Olympe de Gouges

Olympe de GougesThen, as I lay on the ground, I seemed to see this head rolling towards mine down the inclined flagstones: its lips touched mine, an icy shudder ran through my body; I heaved a groan, and fainted.

Dumas, Alexandre. One Thousand and One Ghosts. Trans. Andrew Brown. London: Hesperus Press Limited, 2004, p. 62. Print.

Born in 1748, playwright and political activist Olympe de Gouges grew up in southwestern France with her merchant-class mother and butcher father. There are rumours that she was actually the illegitimate child of an aristocrat (Roelofs, 572). De Gouges’s keen wit and physical beauty helped her find financial backing when she relocated to Paris. Becoming a recognized member of the literary scene took considerably more time, as she was almost completely illiterate upon her arrival (Diamond, 5).

De Gouges won renown as an outspoken member of public debate, causing her male political activist counterparts to dub her “unfeminine” (Roelofs, 572). When the Comédie  français presented de Gouges’s anti-slavery play Zamore et Mirza, ou l’Heureux naufrage, she “denounced the acting troupe […] for refusing to blacken their faces with liquorice juice and act the part of slaves” (Viénet). She continued etching a place in public life as a champion for the rights of black slaves and later for those of women. After the National Assembly approved the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789, de Gouges got to work drafting her Declaration of the Rights of Women, which was published in 1791.

A direct and plain-spoken writer, de Gouges’s Declaration of the Rights of Women begins:

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 opress my sex? Your strength? Your talents? Observe the Creator in his wisdom; survey in all her grandeur that nature with whom you seem to want to be in harmony, and give me, if you dare, an exampl of this tyrannical empire. Go back to animals, consult the elements, study plants, finally glance at all the modifications of organic matter, and surrender to the evidence when I offer you the menas; search, probe, and distinguish, if you can, the sexes in the administration of nature. Everywhere you will find them mingled; everywhere they cooperate in harmonious tpgetherness in this immortal masterpiece.

Man alone has raised his exceptional circumstances to a principle. Bizarre, blind, bloated with science and degenerated–in a century of enlightenment and wisdom–into the crassest ignorance, he wants to command as a despot a sex which is in full possession of its intellectual faculties; he pretends to enjoy the Revolution and to claim his rights to equality in order to say nothing more about it.

It is only in the past few decades that historians of the French Revolution and Women’s Studies have focused their attention on this energetic and determined figure. After de Gouges’s 1794 beheading by guillotine she was represented as a case-in-point why women should not become involved in politics or public life. Dr. Alfred Guillois’s 1904 study Étude médico psychologique sur Olympe de Gouges posited that de Gouges’s political activity was caused by “a mental illness for which he coined the term ‘paranoia reformatoria,’ and provided a scientific imprimatur for a century of vilification” (Diamond, 4).

A long-time critic of Maximilien Robespierre, de Gouges had found myriad ways to anger the Revolutionary Tribunal, the least of which was her assault on the patriarchal structure of the theatre world. De Gouges volunteered to defend the ill-fated Louis XVI at his trial. She also criticized the arrest of the Girondins  (Vanpée, 48) and the beheading of Marie Antoinette, to whom she had dedicated The Rights of Woman (Diamond, 14). Vanpée states that the official reason for de Gouges’s arrest was a pamphlet she wrote entitled Combat à mort des trois gouvernements (Three governments’ battle to the death). In this handout de Gouges urged French citizens to make a decisive stand with one of the three potential governments: monarchy, federalism, or republicanism. Unfortunately, and somewhat puzzlingly, de Gouges was in direct conflict with an earlier decree stating that is was illegal and treasonous to publish “any texts attempting to reestablish a monarchy” (47).

Olympe de Gouges (May 7, 1748 – November 3, 1793)

Olympe de Gouges

Whose lips reject the égalité
That is enforced with the blade?
Whose sharp eyes see that fraternité
To many a sibling is stayed?

Child liberated of her father,
Learns the customs of her time.
Brief sacrifice of love may scald her,
But death of her husband’s sublime.

If the gorge might not deliver voice
In this time of liberty,
The headless throat sweet justice employs
Through the annals of history.

Now she’s happily shipwrecked on the cloud
Where sense and justice meet.
Borne aloft, above the crowd,
Head placed between her feet.

© 2011 Kate MacKeigan

De Gouges, Olympe. “Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen.” College of Staten Island Library: American Studies Program. http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/americanstudies/lavender/decwom2.html. Web. 22 July 2012.
Diamond, Marie Josephine. “The Revolutionary Rhetoric Of Olympe De Gouges.” Feminist Issues 14.1 (1994): 3-23. Academic Search Premier. Web. 22 July 2012.
Roelofs, Joan. “Women’s Rights and the French Revolution: A Biography of Olympe de Gouges.” Science & Society 74.4 (2010): 572-574. Academic Search Premier. doi:10.1521/siso.2010.74.4.572. Web. 22 July 2012.
Vanpée, Janie. “Performing Justice: The Trials of Olympe de Gouges.” Theatre Journal: Women, Nations, Households, and History 51.1 (1999): 47-65. JSTOR. Web. 22 July 2012.
Viénet, René. “Olympe de Gouges, a Daughter of Quercy on her way to the Panthéon.” Le Portail internet du Quercy. http://www.quercy.net/hommes/ogenglish.html. Web. 22 July 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: