Olympe de Gouges - Declaring Rights for All
Updated: Oct 25, 2019
“If women have the right to mount the scaffold, they must also have the right to mount the speaker’s rostrum.”
Olympe de Gouges, an 18th century author, playwright, activist and humanist, was hopeful at the start of the french revolution. She had penned 30 pamphlets in support of change and believed that equality, liberty and fraternity applied to all humankind including women, servants and slaves. When the revolution came to fruition and only landed French men were extended the rights of active citizens, her outrage and disappointment led her to pen the antithesis of the revolution's exalted document, Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Written in 1789, the original document was inspired by the enlightenment philosopher, Rousseau, and drafted by the Marquis de Lafayette, Abbe Sieyes and Honore Mirabeau in consultation with Thomas Jefferson. Undaunted by the gravitas of the men who proposed the declaration and using her intelligence, wit and the style of the original, Olympe took aim at the document in her 1791 treatise, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen.
Born Marie Gouze, in a small town in southwestern France in 1748, she was the illegitimate daughter of a man of letters, power and wealth. Marie was forced to marry a local innkeeper at age 16, partly because her father did not acknowledge her or offer monetary support for her care. Marie bore a male child from the union before her husband died. A widow at 18 years old, Marie never remarried, refusing to ever become a man’s property again.
In 1770, reinventing herself as Olympe de Gouges, she moved to Paris with her son. Olympe desired to become a woman of letters (a writer or poet, or an intellectual) but realized she had to improve the scope of her education and soften her southwestern french dialect in order to put forth her ideas to the sophisticated Parisians. Education available to girls was rudimentary at best in large cities and almost non existent in small villages in the 18th century. Olympe's childhood education consisted of only the basics of reading, writing and sums taught by local nuns.
Through her relationship with her long time amour, Jacques Bietrix de Rozieres, Olympe was introduced to society and the parlors of intellectuals where enlightenment philosophy was discussed and debated. Believing the human mind to be neutral rather than specifically masculine or femimine, Olympe began to expand and refine her philosophical and humanistic ideas and beliefs.
Olympe became a theater owner and wrote 40 plays of a political nature including Zamore and Mirza, The Enslavement of the Blacks. A prolific writer, Olympe promoted her political and humanistic causes in over 90 political essays and 2 novels. Her personal experiences of illegitimacy, poverty, lack of quality education, marginalization due to her sex and unwanted marriage influenced some of her beliefs and proclamations. Her ability to put herself in another’s shoes gave rise to others.
The causes Olympe championed included rights for women: to vote; to have freedom of speech; to divorce their husbands; and to gain employment without their husband's permission. She also proposed and argued for: the abolition of slavery in the French colonies; the suppression of the dowry system; equal access to education for females; the rights of illegitimate children to inherit property; social services for orphans, widows and the elderly; the rights of women to name the fathers of their children; the regulation of prostitution to care for the marginalized women; the right to a fair trial for all people; and the abolition of capital punishment.
It was the right of every person to a fair trial and the abolition of capital punishment that would be the denouement of Olympe. She proclaimed that even King Louis XVI was due a fair trial as a regular citizen and exile rather than execution. That assertion together with Olympe's offer to legally represent the king and her participation in the moderate Girondins party, made her a target of Robespierre and the revolutionary leaders. Knowing she was under scrutiny was not a deterrent for Olympe. In fact, she became even more vocal and went so far as to write an essay offering a three party system for the people to choose from in order to restructure the government. After the Girondins party fell, Olympe was arrested for sedition. In prison, she wrote two more essays, one detailing her interrogations and the other condemning the reign of terror. Tragically, Olympe de Gouges was to become one of the 40,000 victims of France's reign of terror. She was executed by guillotine on November 3,1793, at the Place de la Revolution in Paris, France.
After her death, it was reported, “Olympe de Gouges, born with an exalted imagination, mistook her delirium for an inspiration of nature. She wanted to be a man of state. She took up the projects of the perfidious people who want to divide France. It seems the law has punished this conspirator for having forgotten the virtues that belong to her sex.”
Olympe did not forget the virtues of her "sex". She repeatedly maintained that although her female virtues may be different from some male virtues, they were equal in every way.
Questions to ponder while letting Olympe story sink into your depths…
How many of us have moved away from our places of birth and reinvented ourselves through education and new experiences in order to align with our passions and vocations?
How can we use our personal histories, life events and traumas to create a kinder, more equitable society for others?
Once again we see a woman who uses her creativity to push through a threshold within a rigid system. How can we cultivate courage and use our voice and our creative gifts to express our beliefs and lead from our feminine traits?
Olympe believed the feminine virtues of empathy, receptivity, inclusivity and equality were as valuable as masculine virtues of methodical thought, compartmentalizing, rank and control. How often do we still minimize feminine traits over masculine ones due to viewing feminine traits through a masculine or patriarchal lens?
In Olympe’s story, we see non-dual thinking in her analysis of situations and her activism. Olympe did not agree with, nor align herself with the monarchy. She was aware of the royal family's excesses and the imbalances of power and financial resources. Nonetheless, Olympe offered to represent the king, at a great cost to herself, because she believed in every person’s right to a fair trial. What can we learn about overcoming our own ego's binary (either/or) thinking from her non-dual and magnanimous actions?
For a wonderful biography on the life of this remarkable, avant garde woman, please click below.