The history of women in politics has been a long, torrid, even bloody affair. Even women born into positions of power, such as Cleopatra and Elizabeth I, had to fight for their thrones. What about the women who weren’t lucky in the parental lottery? The odds of an ordinary woman gaining access to the political circles before the 20th Century were second-to-none. But even before “feminism” arrived as a concept, one woman dared voice her political opinions.
Born Marie Gouze in 1748 to a family with a lower-middle class background, growing up, Olympe de Gouges believed herself the illegitimate daughter of the Marquis de Pompignan, a famous scholar. We know little of her childhood, other than she had a decent education. At sixteen, she married Louis Aubry. Forced into it against her will, Olympe never wanted this marriage. She wrote in her later semi-autobiographical novel, “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.”
Fortunately for Olympe, Louis died a year later. Although later in life Olympe entered committed relationships, this experience tainted her views on marriage and she never married again. Olympe once referred to the institution as “the tomb of trust and love.” In 1770 she took her young son Pierre with her to Paris. There, she mingled within the artistic and political circles, often invited into the salons, intellectual gatherings provided by a wealthy host. One such salon host was Fanny de Beauharnais, aunt of Josephine de Beauharnais, future wife of Napoleon. Around this time, she referred to herself as Olympe de Gouges, Olympe being the Gallic variation of Olympia, which held the ancient Olympic Games. This new name, hearkening back to the intellectual Greeks, enabled Olympe to fit in with the Parisian intelligentsia.
Before the 1789 French Revolution, Olympe penned over 30 plays. Almost all of her works publicized her opinions on social issues. Olympe was also a prolific writer of political pamphlets and used them to enter the public debate. Besides her vocal thoughts on marriage, Olympe wrote about children’s rights; unemployment benefit; divorce; debtor’s prisons and the slave trade. Her play “l’Esclavage des Noirs” and her 1788 pamphlet “Réflexions sur les hommes négres” propelled her into fierce public debate and made her one of the first public figures in France to oppose slavery. Olympe’s stance against it made her the target of many threats. Supporters of the slave trade launched a vicious campaign against her play, leading Olympe to seek legal action. Although the play reached the stage, it only played for three days, after hecklers paid for by the slavery supporters sabotaged the performances.
Olympe found opposition within her own artistic circles not only due to her beliefs, but sometimes her gender. The famous actor Abraham-Joseph Bénard remarked, “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… Every woman author is in a false position, regardless of her talent.”
Undetermined, Olympe replied “I’m determined to be a success, and I’ll do it in spite of my enemies.” Only a few years later in 1790 and 1791, slaves led a revolt in the French colony of Haiti. The public accused Olympe of inciting the revolution with her play. When they staged it in 1792, a riot erupted in Paris. In actuality, the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” the document demanding a French Constitution, which become influential in creating the eventual French Republic, influenced the Haitian revolutionaries.
Olympe noticed in The Rights of Man there was no mention of women; women didn’t even count as citizens in it. In response, she published her most famous work “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen” in 1792. In it, she is sarcastic and militant in tone, citing the hypocrisy of The Rights of Man. Some read Olympe’s work as comedic, as she follows the format of The Rights of Man to the letter. Olympe dedicated the work to Marie Antoinette, declaring her “the most detested” of women. Like her works concerning slavery, The Rights of Women antagonized Olympe, this time within the growing revolutionary circles.
The revolutionaries divided into several fractions. Olympe belonged to one, the Girondists. While the Girondists initially fought for an end to the monarchy, they became disillusioned with how extreme the revolution was becoming and campaigned for a constitutional monarchy instead. Olympe disagreed with both violent revolution and capital punishment. She believed they should exile the former monarchs rather than execute them. In December 1792, she offered to defend Louis XVI at his trial. Her letter to the National Assembly stated that while guilty as a king, he was innocent as a man. After his execution, she criticized the growing influence of Robespierre and his use of violence. Olympe’s sympathy for Louis XVI and her continual opposition to the revolution’s direction caused her arrest in 1793.
They searched her house for evidence to convict her of anti-revolutionary thought. When the officials couldn’t find anything, she took them to where she kept her papers. This is where they discovered her final unfinished play “France Preserved, or The Tyrant Dethroned.” In the first act, Marie Antoinette is planning to save the crumbling monarchy. The revolutionaries confront her. Olympe is among them and lectures the queen in how she should lead the country. She and her prosecutor both used this play in her trial. Olympe claimed she had always supported the revolution. Her prosecutor argued Olympe had tried to stir up sympathy for the monarchy.
The judge denied Olympe the right to a lawyer, declaring her more than able to defend herself. He no doubt knew her history of representing herself on her writings and her offer to represent Louis XVI. Olympe spent three months in jail, trying to defend herself against execution. All efforts were futile. On 3rd November 1793, they sentenced her to death on the grounds of provocative behavior and trying to reinstate the monarchy. Her execution was the next day. They disposed of her body in the Madeleine Cemetery.
While Olympe earned many enemies in France for her writings, across the English Channel, another figure was watching the French Revolution. This woman was Mary Wollstonecraft. She was also angry about the lack of women in The Rights of Man. Wollstonecraft published her own work in 1792, the “Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Unlike Olympe, Wollstonecraft received widespread respect. Many consider her a cornerstone of first-wave feminist thought. While we remember Wollstonecraft as a significant figure, history has largely forgotten Olympe. Although a celebrity in her own lifetime, her trial, conviction, and execution as a counter-revolutionary saw her fade into the background. History rediscovered her in the later 20th Century. A campaign in the 21st Century to rebury her in the Pantheon, brought her to further attention.
Although Olympe paid the ultimate price in voicing her opinions, her bravery and consistent perseverance through adversity became an example to many women who fought for their rights to enter the political arena.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.