Olympe de Gouges: Writing or Dying

Marie-Olympe-de-Gouges Different time, same result. Olympe de Gouges was a writer at the end of the Eighteenth-century. Not only a writer actually, when the French Revolution started, she dedicated her life and her pen for freedom and equality. Opposed to Robespierre, leader of the Montagnards, she was arrested and beheaded in 1793. It seems appropriate to recall her history now.

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Born in Montauban in 1748, Marie Gouze is the daughter of Pierre Gouze and Anne Olympe Mouisset. There was a rumour in the village that Marie was not Gouze’s daughter but the illegitimate child of the marquis Jean-Jacques Lefranc de Pompignan, a famous writer of the Eighteenth-century. Real or not, this liaison is accredited by Olympe herself who used that plot for one of her novel, Mémoire de Madame de Valmont contre la famille de Flaucourt. She was unhappily married in 1765 to a man who died soon, Louis-Yves Aubry. Marie Gouze, free, settled in Paris soon after with her son, Pierre. She changed her name around that time and was know in the capital as Olympe de Gouges. During the 19th century, she was known as a courtesan, but among her putative lovers, only Jacques Biétrix de Rozières is known for sure: their liaison was quite official, he paid for her expenses and gave her annuities. It seems that he even ask her in marriage, but de Gouges always refused to marry again (she qualifies in her Declaration des droits de la femme the marriage as « le tombeau de la confiance et de l’amour »). She was obviously not following the traditional rules for wedding, her personal situation seems to be closer of the kept-woman than of the courtesan. Olympe de Gouges started to write plays in the early 1780s and had some fame among the Parisian literary circles: Zamore et Mirza, ou L’heureux naufrage in 1785 (only performed by the Comédie-Française in 1792), L’Homme généreux in 1786 or again Le Couvent, ou les vœux forcés in 1790.

Déclaration des droits de la femme
Déclaration des droits de la femme

At the beginning of the French Revolution, Olympe de Gouges became a passionate pamphleteer, writing about politics, society and morality. Visionary, she sought equal rights for women and blacks, the right to divorce, education for all and the creation of national workshops for the unemployed. To promote equality between man and woman, Olympe de Gouges parodied the text of the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen. She used the same structure, with a preamble and seventeen articles based on the shared humanity of man and woman. De Gouges added a preface, a postamble and a short text called ‘Forme du Contrat social de l’Homme et de la femme’. The Déclaration demands the full legal assimilation, political and social empowerment of women. Olympe de Gouges made herself the spokesperson of women as we can see with the first sentence of the preamble: ‘Les mères, les filles, les sœurs, représentantes de la nation, demandent d’être constituées en Assemblée nationale’. The Declaration was written in September 1791 to be presented at the National Assembly on the 28th of October 1791. Olympe de Gouges’s text requested full legal, political and social assimilation of women. It is the first truly universal Declaration of Human Rights, which raises a universally valid requirement for both men and women. When she wrote the text, she was disappointed by the National Assembly, which did not talk at all about women’s rights during the discussions about the new constitution. Strongly opposed to the Jacobins and especially Robespierre, she was arrested in July 1793 for the publication of Les Trois urnes ou le Salut de la patrie, par un voyageur aérien. Faithful to her Déclaration and its article 10 ‘La Femme a le droit de monter sur l’échafaud; elle doit avoir également celui de monter à la Tribune’, she was quickly judged and guillotined in November 3, 1793.