Olympe de Gouges
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Olympe de Gouges was born Marie Gouze in Monauban, a small town north of Toulouse in 1748. Her father, Pierre Gouze, was a butcher and her mother, Anne-Olympe Mouisset, came from a family of drapers. It is possible that de Gouges was the illegitimate daughter of Jean-Jacques Lefranc, the Marquis de Pompignan, a minor playwright—a rumor that she encouraged and may even have started. At 17 she was married to Louis-Yves Aubry, a much older business associate of her father. She gave birth to a son, Pierre Aubry, the same year that Louis-Yves died in a flood. It has been suggested, however, that de Gouges may have fled the marriage and invented this story as a cover. At 19 she formed a relationship with a well-to-do businessman from Lyon, Jacques Bietrix de Rozieres,who installed her in Paris with a comfortable income.
Rather than living as the Widow Aubry, de Gouges took on her mother’s middle name, changed the spelling of her father’s and added the aristocratic "de." Adding to this already audacious gesture, the name “Gouges” may also have been a sly and provocative joke. The word “gouge” in Occitan was an offensive slang term used to refer to lowly, bawdy women.
Having re-invented herself, de Gouges became a fixture of the fashionable, libertine circles of pre-revolutionary Paris society of the 1770s. She held salons and began composing poetry, novellas, pamphlets and plays. Because she was able to sign her marriage certificate, it is assumed that de Gouges received the rudiments of an education, but whether or at what level she could read and write is unknown. Her relatively prolific career was built on the typically masculine habit of dictating to a secretary. Whether de Gouges read or simply absorbed ideas from her compatriots, she was well versed in the major ideas of Enlightenment thought and familiar with its major thinkers, such as Rousseau and Montesquieu.
De Gouges attended and participated in the meetings of political clubs, including the Société des Amis de la Constitution (the Jacobin Club) throughout the 1780s, published pamphlets that criticized the monarchy, advocated women’s rights and supported the abolitionist cause. Her play Zamore and Mizra, or the Happy Shipwreck (1785), was an early contribution to abolitionist literature that predated the formation of the Society of the Friends of Blacks by three years.
With the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 de Gouges threw herself into politics. She produced numerous broadsides and pamphlets between 1789 and 1792 that called for, among other things, houses of refuge for women and children at risk; a tax to fund workshops for the unemployed; the legitimation of children born out of wedlock; inheritance equality; the legalization and regulation of prostitution; the legalization of divorce; clean streets; a national theater and the opening of professions to everyone regardless of race, class or gender. She also began to sign her letters “citoyenne,” the feminine version of the conventional revolutionary honorific “citoyen.”
De Gouges' most famous pamphlet, “La Declaration des Droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne” (“The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen”) was a parodically-styled but serious response to the 1789 “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” which laid the theoretical ground work for the French constitution of 1791. De Gouges' work reproduces much of the original text, replacing the word "man" with the word "woman" to great effect. But the text does not simply demand that women be granted the rights of a "citoyen." In several moves that anticipate later feminist critiques of universalism, de Gouges adds specific demands that demonstrate the ways in which allegedly universal rights are often implicitly masculine. For example, the "citoyenne’s" inalienable right to free speech would entail the ability to publicly name the father of her children without being questioned.
De Gouges was an early and ardent supporter of the French Revolution but she became wary of its radicalization. She sided with the Girondist faction advocating for a constitutional monarchy, a reprieve for the King and a national referendum on his fate. She particularly disliked Robespierre, whom she attacked in an open letter, addressing him with the informal "tu." De Gouges, who had demanded in her “Declaration” that women be given the right to climb the scaffold along with men, was arrested after publishing a seditious broadside championing the federalist cause. She was guillotined on November 3, 1793.
Written by Rebecca H. Lossin, Ph.D. candidate in Communications, Columbia Journalism School, Columbia University
Belissa, Marc. “French Revolution,” Oxford Bibliographies
“Gouges, Olympe de” Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment,ed. Alan Charles Kors, Oxford University Press, 2002
Rivas, Joshua. “The Radical Novelty of Olympe de Gouges,”Nottingham French Studies 53.3. 2014, 345-358
Sankey, M. “Gouges, Olympe de,” Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlanctic World,London: Routledge, 2007
Hesse, Carla. “Olympe de Gouges” Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire, ed. John Merriman and Jay Witner, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006