Remarkable life and death of France’s ‘first feminist’

Olympe de Gouges regularly courted controversy with her politically aware writing – and she eventually went to the guillotine for calling for the re-establishment of the French monarchy

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Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793), often cited as the first French feminist, was ahead of her time both in her struggle for women’s rights and in her opposition to slavery.

“She had no doubts about herself, her views or her right to express them, which was extraordinary for that era,” her biographer Sophie Mousset said.

“Perhaps she got that from her mother, who was a very strong character. She was also much-loved: by her mother, her mother’s husband and her natural father, which gave her immense confidence in herself.”

Born in Montauban, Tarn-et-Garonne, it was believed that Olympe was the illegitimate child of local aristocrat and poet Lefranc de Pompignan, and the expensive education her mother insisted upon did nothing to quell the rumours.

In 1765, at the age of 17, education notwithstanding, she was forced into marriage with Louis-Yves Aubry, a butcher 30 years her senior, and gave birth to a son, Pierre.

Her husband died the following year and she never married again.

Later, in a semi-autobiographical novel Mémoire de Madame de Valmont contre la famille de Flaucourt she wrote, “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.”

She also famously referred to marriage as the ‘tomb of love and trust’.

In 1770 she moved to Paris with her sister and adopted the name Olympe de Gouges, an alternate spelling of her mother’s name Gouze.

She began a relationship with Jacques Biétrix de Rozières and although she refused to marry him, right until the Revolution, their relationship continued and he supported her in some financial style.

She began attending literary salons and continued her education, reading widely and meeting with philosophers, scientists and writers.

Her natural father’s literary success may well have prompted her to put pen to paper herself. Beautiful, intelligent, well-educated, being considered a courtesan was not a particular drawback to her career.

She began producing plays and founded a theatrical touring company which her son eventually joined.

She wrote more than 30 plays, as well as novels, pamphlets, and declarations.

“She had unfettered access to all sorts of people, which really broadened her outlook.

“She learned to think for herself, and one of her first opinions was that marriage was a type of slavery for women,” Ms Mousset said. “It wasn’t really a subject that the working classes considered at that time – the struggle to survive was all-consuming – but among the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy ideas about women’s rights were circulating.”

Olympe de Gouges became famous in 1785 when her play Zamore et Mirza ou l’heureux naufrage was included in the repertory of the Comédie Française.

It was an open attack on slave ownership and a defence of black rights – and it earned her a shower of death threats, particularly from slave traders.

She only narrowly escaped being sent to the Bastille due to the social strings her supporters were able to pull at court.

Noted actor Abraham-Joseph Bénard’s attack was typical: “Mme de Gouges is one of those women to whom one feels like giving razor blades as a present, who through their pretensions lose the charming qualities of their sex,” he wrote.

“Every woman author is in a false position, regardless of her talent”.

She responded, “I’m determined to be a success, and I’ll do it in spite of my enemies.”

The play was not performed until after the 1789 revolution, when it was produced as L’Esclavage des noirs, ou l’heureux naufrage. It caused another massive row, with slave traders and owners demanding that the play be edited, and that Olympe de Gouges should be imprisoned.

Undaunted, she announced that she had written a second abolitionist play called Le Marché des Noirs and set about writing Réflexions sur les hommes nègres on the same subject.

“Black men,” she wrote, “have always interested me with their deplorable destiny. People I have questioned have never satisfied my curiosity and my reasoning.

“They treat these people as brutes, beings the heavens have cursed.

“But as I age I see clearly that force and prejudice have condemned them to this horrible slavery; that nature had no part in it and that the unjust and powerful interest of the whites did it all.”

She saw the Revolution as a chance to increase social equality, but became disenchanted when égalité was only extended to men, and in 1791 she responded to the publication of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen with her own work: Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen.

“A woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker’s platform,” she declared.

“She also argued for marriage to be a civil contract drawn up between equals, with divorce possible for both parties.

It did not go down well, particularly on the heels of her anti-slavery works. The few performances of her play were ruined by hecklers and riots broke out in the streets.

She stuck to her guns. “She knew she was risking everything with her views,” Ms Mousset said. “It was why she moved out of Paris temporarily.

“But she was a fantastically political woman and she hoped to end up on trial in court rather than dead. She pinned her faith on getting a trial during which she would be able to win the argument.

“As a woman in her mid-40s she felt she was losing her charms and therefore her power. So, perhaps, she felt she had less to lose, but in any case, she risked her life for her ideas.”

She opposed the execution of Louis XVI and even wrote to the National Assembly offering to defend him in court, causing outrage among old diehards who felt that women had no place in public life.

The king went to the guillotine in January 1793, by which time Gouges had joined the Girondin faction, who favoured constitutional monarchy.

In a series of pamphlets she launched a bitter attack on Robespierre and the Montagnard faction, condemning their violence and summary executions.

Finally, she published a poster showing three voting urns (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”) representing a vote to choose between a republic, a federal government and a constitutional monarchy.

She had played right into Robespierre’s hands; calling for any re-establishment of the monarchy was illegal. He had her arrested and thrown into prison.

She tried to defend herself. Pregnant women could not be executed so she claimed she was pregnant; then she told them where to find her papers, arguing that a half-finished play (La France Sauvée ou le Tyran Détrôné “France Preserved, or The Tyrant Dethroned”) in which she lectured Marie-Antoinette about how to run the kingdom properly, showed her devotion to the Revolution.

During her three-month imprisonment she published papers detailing her interrogation, and condemning The Terror.

In November 1793 she wrote to Pierre, “I die, my dear son, a victim of my idolatry for the motherland and for the people. Under the specious mask of republicanism, her enemies have brought me remorselessly to the scaffold.”

She was executed the next day.

An anonymous account noted: “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.”

Women’s Rights and the French Revolution: A Biography of Olympe de Gouges by Sophie Mousset (in English) is available on Amazon.