Category: French History
OLYMPE DE GOUGES – The First Feminist in France
Olympe de Gouges, born in Montauban in 1748, who died guillotined in Paris November 3, 1793, is now considered to be the first true feminist in France. Her life and her works are fascinating and show both her determination to speak her mind and her incredible, if naive, courage in the face of hostility and opposition to both her ideas and her person.
The name Olympe de Gouges might sound familiar to you. That is because everywhere in France, in almost every city and town, there is a street, a school, a square, or a public building that is named after her.
There is a Place Olympe de Gouges in Paris in the 6th arrondissement.
In Montauban where she was born the theater, and a school are named after her, and a plaque is visible where she was born.
In 2016 a bust of Olympe de Gouges was put into the Assembly General, a first for a woman!
At the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris there is a permanent piece created by the video/music artist, Nam June Paik, in her honor.
Here is a short summary of her life in a few dates:
1748: Born in Montauban as Marie Gouze to an upper class but not noble family.
1765: Married at the age of 17 to a man 30 years her senior
1766: Had her only son
1769 or 1770. Widowed
1771: Leaves provincial Montauban with her son and goes to Paris where she lives a mondain and rich life as Olympe de Gouges
1780’s – becomes an outspoken writer of tracts and theater pieces about different social issues including the abolition of slavery, forced marriage, divorce, equal rights for women, equality of taxation, and the need for a “just” social system
1789 – 1793
Writes over 60 tracts, pamphlets, texts, theater pieces, posters and letters publically calling for reforms of all kinds.
1791: Had a couple of her “theater pieces” performed that are specifically about these “causes”.
Becomes an outspoken and well known figure in reformist and revolutionary circles as well as in the upper social circles where she lives. She is both admired and hated and ridiculed for her works, her ideas and her forceful personality.
1793: She is arrested and condemned to death after a kangaroo court trial because she has published a brief paper against violence and the extremes of the Revolution.
November 3, 1793 she goes to her death with dignity and writes one last missive about equality for women just before her execution. She is 45 years old.
HER REPUTATION AND HER WRITINGS
In her lifetime, and despite a rather skimpy formal education, Olympe de Gouges wrote over 18 works for the theater and over 60 other writings. These include; tracts, pamphlets, posters, political texts, letters. Her last known piece of writing was done a couple of hours before her death, in her cell, and is called: A Persecuted Patriot.
Throughout the years from 1771 to 1793 when she died, she became known as an outspoken and opinionated reformer and pamphleteer who was not afraid to join exclusive literary and political groups and conversations where “new” and “subversive” ideas were being discussed.
One of her first causes was the Abolition of Slavery in the colonies. She wrote her first theater piece , Zamore and MIrza in 1789 about the abolition of slavery, and many tracts about this cause. This made her highly unpopular is many circles but she doesnt seem to have been worried about her reputation.
She wrote about Women’s Rights, the right to a Divorce, to have equal say in society, to be considered equal to men. She wrote about the need for a “Civil” marriage, for the recognition of paternity, for the need to help women with maternity services. She had an absolute abhorence of the death penalty. She truly believed that people of “color” were exactly the same and equal to others. She demanded equal rights for women under all circumstances. 1791 she wrote about the suppression of religious mariages and in response to a Declaration of the Right of Men as Citizens, as part of the Revolution, she wrote a DECLARATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN AS CITIZENS.
She also participated at first in the groups that were writing up new laws as part of the “new” Revolutionary France. These new measures included a universal and more equal system of taxation and a relief of debts for the poorest. Because of her supposedly being the illegitimate daughter of a minor nobleman, she wrote about giving legitimacy to ‘out of wedlock’ children. She wrote a theater piece called ‘The Convent or Forced Vows” about the practice of sending some daughters to convents against their will.
All in all, in the 20 or so years she lived in Paris, she became known for both her lavish life style – supposedly as the mistress of a wealthy man, and for her insistence and obsession with social justice. In spite of what was considered to be her lack of finesse in her writings, she continued to agitate for causes that she considered important, wrote and wrote, and many of her works had to do with the condition of women.
Imprudent and always outspoken, she broke with the most revolutionary of the groups (with whom she had been close) during the year 1792, as her ideas about the monarchy balanced back and forth between absolute Republic,, a federalist form of government or constitutional monarchy. And it was her last position, as a reaction to the killings and violence, as the Terror took hold, when she backtracked to the idea of a constitutional monarchy, that finally got her condemned.
In 1793 she wrote a poster suggesting a universal ‘vote’ on which form of government would be best. The fact that she even included the monarchy, however weakened, was considered as treason. She was arrested in August of 1793, put in prison, where she continued to write.
In November of 1793 as some of her former extremist friends were being condemned, she was brought to trial. Defending herself as she was not allowed a lawyer, apparently, according to witnesses, doing so very well, she was, nevertheless, quickly condemned as a traitor to the Revolution. The next morning, after writing a last letter to her son (who, to save himself, publically repudiated her), she went to the guillotine. Her last writing said, “If a woman has the right to be executed, she should equally have the right to be part of the Tribunal”. And her last words, according to a witness, were “ Children of the country – You will avenge my death!” She was 45 years old.
Olympe de Gouges was only the second woman (after the Queen) to be executed by the Revolutionaries.
POSTERITY AND HER REPUTATION
Perhaps partially because one of her grand daughters married a rich American and another married an Englishman, that in both countries, but especially in the United States, certain memories of her writings and her history were kept alive.
Having been either disparaged by certain historians, or just forgotten, considered to be a minor figure in the history of the Revolution and of France, it wasn’t until after WW II, that several historians, interested in women’s history, started being interested in Olympe de Gouges and her writings. With the rise of Feminist Studies and a renewed interest in the minor players of history, her writings, or more importantly HER IDEAS as a woman have become more and more important.
Besides American and German scholars, a French historian, Oliver Blanc wrote a very important biography about her in 1981 that brought her back into the public eye. It used her manuscripts to show how important her ideas were.
She is now considered to be the very first French Feminist and her ideas: which were extremely modern and revolutionary for the time, fit in perfectly with contemporary ideas about women’s rights and subjects like the death penalty or slavery and racism.
There have been several attempts to have her brought to the Pantheon as an example of a woman who has contributed to the history of France, but up to now the idea has been rejected by different Presidents. The last rejection was this November 2022 when President Macron chose two other women to enter the Pantheon. A petition continues to circulate to have her become the 7th women to be considered to be a “heroine” of France.
Perhaps in the near future this will change.
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Category: French History