As one of France’s first feminist, Olympe de Gouges remains surprisingly unknown by European progressives. Sure, we all know the basic: her name, and how she met her fate when the Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris  found her guilty of having “question[ed] the republican principles” and therefore, sentenced her to death alongside 2742 individuals deemed as enemies of the State. Besides her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, little of her life and work is known by the public. Yet, she was arguably one of the most influential feminist of the modern era and, as one of the Revolution’s artisans and daughters, a martyr of progress as well as a vibrant symbol of the darkest aspects of the First Republic.
Olympe de Gouges’ youth – she was then called Marie Gouze – seems to be filled with decisions taken by her family on her behalf. As a 17-year-old young woman, she was married to a man thirty years older than her, described by Paul Noack as “an uncultivated and ill-mannered individual” who died soon after the birth of their son, who would grow to disown his mother to escape the Revolution’s wrath. She decided not to get married again, for the French law stated that a married woman needed her husband’s agreement to publish any article or novel, which made her freer as a widow than she ever was as a wife. She was free, indeed and at last, to pursue her own desires and therefore, decided to move to Paris and join the many artists and intellectuals who were shaking the very foundations of the French monarchy, slowly but surely paving the way for a ground-breaking and ambitious revolution.
At a time when women living alone and well were often considered to be prostitutes, Olympe de Gouges’ habits of seeing men without getting married – such as the powerful Bretrix de Rozières – made her appear, at the very best, as a voluptuous courtesan. Yet, the company of these men provided her with the two things she needed the most: money and (relative) freedom. She was therefore able to write and produce “Black Men’s Slavery or the Fortunate Shipwreck” thus proving that she was not only interested in emancipating the women but those who were dominated by the powerful and the rich. To denounce slavery whilst half of France’s foreign trade was linked to it wasn’t only daring; it was a topic only dealt with by the century’s highbrows. She was therefore asserting herself as an equal of Diderot  or Rousseau , though her thoughts never reached the fame of theirs. She had no inferiority complex whatsoever and that was surely her biggest asset and strength.
With the French Revolution came the dark times of the Terror. Besieged by more than ten foreign kingdoms brought together by a shared will to re-establish Louis XVI on the throne of France and make an example of the French republic to impress their own people, but also devastated by monarchist rebellions led by fanatic priests and seditious officers, the First Republic’s life was filled with plots, treasons, brave sacrifices and hopeless battles at the boarders. In less than 10 years of Revolutionary Wars, the French Republic, dedicating its entire economy and society to war for the first time in the history of Europe, raised more than a million soldiers and sacrificed nearly 500,000 of them  against the armies of Prussia, Austria, Russia, Great-Britain, Sweden and Spain, without even mentioning the fierce troops from Italian and German kingdoms. Organising the mobilisation and daily life of the First Republic was the Convention, which established the Terror first as a mean to prevent the Republic from falling  and then, as an oppressive tool dedicated to crushing any suspects. But beyond the deputies and other representatives, France was being ruled by one master and one master only: the fear to see its numerous enemies crush its armies, loot its eastern cities and defeat not only the nation as a whole, but the ideas that were still defended by thousands of citizens: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. In the name of preserving the stability of the Republic and to insure the nation’s survival, the Convention made it almost impossible to criticise it and soon enough, the rightful criticism was considered a capital offense. The Revolution was ready to feed on its own children.
Olympe de Gouges, yet, remained brave enough to criticise the power of the Convention. Friend of some preeminent Girondins – a political faction close to the Robespierre’s Jacobins – she took some daring stances, offering her services to Louis XVI’s defence – he hadn’t been sentenced to death yet – as well as to Marie-Antoinette, France’s former Queen, who was soon to be sent to the guillotine. Her opinions included some radical thoughts, such as allowing the power to execute women – as they were, unlike men, unable to be sentenced to death. Amongst other things, she also defended the Right to Divorce – which was truly revolutionary at that time! – as well as the necessity to recognise infants born out the wedlock to prevent them from living a life of misery. Her thoughts were ground-breaking, but such boldness, though partly supported by the revolutionary factions, was also to draw attention on her as she prepared herself to denounce the Convention’s abuses of power .
Olympe de Gouges was arrested on July the 20th, 1793. Her faults were serious. She had publicly criticised the First Republic for the massacres that had occurred in its jails during the bloody nights of September the 2nd and the 3rd, 1792 and blamed Marat, one of the Revolution’s leaders and spokesmen, for it. Marat, another son of the Revolution, who was later on assassinated  by the fanatic Charlotte Corday. Moreover, she had accused Robespierre, perhaps the most famous French revolutionary of those days, of wanting to become the Republic’s dictator. Her friends, the Girondins, had fell two days before and had already been executed. Her enemies, within the ranks of the Montagnards, were on the other hand quite numerous and her fate, already sealed. Despite her brilliant defence and last attempt at avoiding the capital punishment, she was brought to the guillotine  and famously meet her fate as she led her life: with dignity and courage.
“Women, isn’t it a good time for us to have our own revolution?
Will women always be isolated? Will they ever truly join the society?”
Olympe de Gouges, Letter to the King, Letter to the Queen
Written by Hugo Decis