I Foresaw it All: The Amazing Life and Oeuvre of Olympe de Gouges

Pauline Paul

Marie Gouze was seventeen years of age when she was married to the son of an inn-keeper. To make Marie a wife already as a teenager and to see her become a mother shortly thereafter can hardly have been scandalous in the French province of Montabaur in 1765. After all, the girl was at the right age and the husband appeared to be a good catch. However, when deciding whether to get married, financial reasons were not the bride’s primary motivation, as Marie testified later on. She felt “needlessly sacrificed” to a man, to whom she nourished no feelings and who, turned out to be neither rich nor well-born to boot. And even though Marie, as the typical bourgeois daughter, might have been enthused by the sublime ideas of the Enlightenment with regards to marriage - the promise of marriage under the banner of love - she drew far less romantic conclusions from the disappointment with her husband: “Marriage is the grave for trust and love.” Until her death she was true to this insight.  Her ill-fated union did not last very long. It was only after one year that her husband died. Finally Marie could start her own life.

In 1770, she moves to Paris with her son Pierre and changes name and social rank. From now on she calls herself Olympe de Gouges and is admired as one of the “most beautiful women of Paris” (according to the judgment of a contemporary). But nature did not only bless her with beauty. Olympe is also a woman with esprit and she knows how to behave in the salons of the high society. Allegedly, she was even received in the domicile of Prince Phillipe, a cousin of Louis XVI. Since she, as a widow from the petty bourgeoisie, did not have a command of vast rights, she is one of the privileged women. Like any other social relationships, the relationship between the sexes during the Ancien Regime was subject to a fixed hierarchy. The tradition of power interests within the aristocracy decided on matrimony, and the rules in the gallant society demanded to place the lady according the rank of the bridegroom. Becoming a mistress was a rare occasion for a bourgeois woman.

Still, Olympe de Gouges, who could not claim anything with respect to the name and heritage of her father, was conscious of her noble origins, being “the daughter … of a laurelled head”.  It was not the butcher Pierre Gouze, but rather Jean Jacques Le Franc (1709-1784), the Marquis de Pompignan, chief justice of Montauban, who was her real father. This rich nobleman was considered a highly educated gentleman. His translation of Aeschylus into French found acclaim in Paris. He also wrote tragedies himself and in 1760 the Academie Francaise admitted him as a member. He had loved Olympe’s mother already in his childhood, and he had used his social standing for a scheme, which was completely normal for an 18th century nobleman.  He simply sent the butcher Gouze, who was married to the Marquis’ mistress—a marriage that was suited to Gouze’s station— on a trip. Therefore, Marie Olympe was born on May 7, 1748 as the legal daughter to the butcher Pierre Gouze – yet as the biological daughter to the Marquis. The capricious fate that placed her from the beginning outside the established order would continue to steer her later life between the fronts of society.     

A decade after her arrival in Paris, Olympe de Gouges had transformed from femme galante to femme de lettre, and it would be the Marquise de Montesson (the morganatic wife of the old Duke of Orleans) to introduce the theater aficionado and writer to the Comédie Française. Hence, in 1784, in the year of her father’s death, Olympe took up the intellectual legacy of the Marquis de Pompignan. Throughout her life she will write forty dramas, novels, smaller literary treatises and political pamphlets. It was already in 1785 that the Comédie Française accepts her political drama “Zamor and Mirza”. Elated, but also impatient, the ambitious playwright pushes the actors in the following weeks. She wants to see her play on stage very soon. An altercation, angry letters are being exchanged and soon the production is taken off the repertoire completely. However, for the determined Olympe the quarrel is not over. She asks for an audience with the Duke of Duras, who is in charge of the theater, yet, her request is denied. She is even threatened with Bastille prison. It is not only the temperament of this tough woman fighting for her recognition as a writer that causes rejection. The whole perspective of the drama is not welcome, since in “Zamor and Mirza” Olympe de Gouges opposes “The Enslavement of the Blacks”. She will have to fight for another four years until her drama can finally premiere under exactly this title at the Théâtre de la Nation on December 28, 1789, in the year of the revolution.  However, it is quickly discontinued, since supporters of colonialism and abolitionists started fist fights during the premiere.  When the national assembly is voting on a decree that orders to abolish slavery in France, yet not in the colonies, Olympe de Gouges― now well-known as political publicist— is outraged about such a violation of human rights: ”There (in the colonies) the planters exercise a despotic reign over people, whose fathers and brothers they are. They scrutinize their origins to the smallest shades of color and ignore human rights.”

In 1788 she dedicates the first volumes of her literary works to Prince Phillipe, she admires his political outlook until he votes for the King’s (his cousin) death in 1792. “Oh Bourbons!  May your dynasty be cursed for eternity”, she writes to Phillipe, “may the vengeance of God and the people make you want to destroy each other.” 

Olympe never held back her political views. Still, she knew how to veil her gallant life with a mysterious air, as her elevated rank demanded. This led her biographers to speculate about the origins of her considerable wealth. What a scandal:  Olympe de Gouge, the women’s rights activist – first a lady of pleasure, then a Bluestocking! How wonderfully did this enervating perpetually repeated interpretation fit the image that until the twentieth century people had of an advocate for the human rights for women. This went along perfectly with the bourgeois moral double standard, which had burdened gender relationships since the revolution. Olympe de Gouges is convinced that it would not be the affirmation of a hypocritical morality but rather the equality in rights that would promote decency and morality in human interaction: “Whoever demonizes this wholesome philosophy shall refrain from scolding the primitive morals.”

The virtue of being a rational, thinking individual, with a compassionate soul and ethical conscience – that alone defines a human being. Alone these qualities bestow him or her with an exclusive value, regardless of gender or rank in society. These ideas of enlightenment, based on natural justice, eventually merging with the political demand for liberty and equality of all mankind shaped all thought of those literary and artists’ circles, which Olympe des Gouges had been befriending since 1780.

One of her closest friends is the writer Louis Sébastian Mercier (1740-1814).  She feels akin to him, can philosophize about everything with him: not only about literature and politics, but also about Lavater’s physiognomy, Mesmer’s animal-like magnetism, about the meaning of being and life after death. To her it is completely obvious that all nature is spiritual, since, like Mercier, she has turned to the teachings of the transmigration of souls. Her apartment is teeming with dogs, cats, little monkeys and all sorts of birds that are named after honorable historical personalities and with which she holds conversations in a philosophical manner.

After a night at the theater or the opera, people would meet in the gardens, at the cafes, perhaps also at the gambling tables of the Palais Royal (owned by the Duke of Orléans who likes being called Philippe Egalité up there), engage in conversations, applaud agitators and one might give a radical speech every now and then. Freedom of thought is routine, and “mind has no sex whatsoever”.  Already a century before, in 1673, the Cartesian François Poulain de la Barre had proclaimed this enlightened thought in his treatise “The equality of both sexes”. Yet, the revolutionaries will do away thoroughly with the old times, in which the femme savante held sophisticated conversations with erudite men on art and the nature of the human being. The revolutionaries consider the salon a remnant of aristocratic vices and the learned woman as a downright aberrant being. “A woman”, argues the hero of the revolution, Jean Jacques Rousseau, in his Emile, “that is an aesthete, is a misfortune to her husband, her children, her friends, her servants, to the whole world.  In the sublime dignity of her mind she despises all female obligations….”

Olympe de Gouges, however, asserts that an exaggerated learnedness made the man deviate from his natural fate. Everywhere in nature both sexes would be interacting in “harmonious unanimity”. It is not like that with the human being.  “Bizarre, blind, presumptuous and disfigured by his science, the man regresses into utmost ignorance in this age of Enlightenment and Reason and believes to be able to despotically dispose of one sex, which is in full command of all intellectual abilities.”

When, on September 3, 1791, the national assembly proclaims the revised version of the constitution, she is in “gloomy thoughts”:  There is no mention whatsoever of the legal equality of men and women. Had the declaration of human rights on August 27, 1789 been nothing else than a declaration of man rights?  “Tell me”, Olympe de Gouges now addresses the women, “what are the advantages of the Revolution for you? It will bring an even deeper contempt, an even more blatant disesteem towards all of you. During the times of corruption (the Ancien Régime) you were at least in charge of the weaknesses of men.  Since this empire lies in ruins now – what is left for you?”

In 1791, only a few days after the proclamation of the new constitution, Olympe de Gouges posted the work that established her fame on the walls of Paris:  her “Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen”.  In this text she does not describe a female antagonist. “This declaration”, the preamble states, ”may constantly be present to all members of the social body and remind them of their rights and their duties; in order that the acts of women's and men’s power may be judged constantly against the aim of all political institutions, and respected accordingly.”

Her Declaration of the Rights of Women is an amendment to the 1789 Declaration of (Hu-)man Rights and it also contains 17 items that emphasize nation, as a “joining together of man and woman”. She designed a particular form for a “social contract between man and woman”. She focuses her attention on the security of the children. Even illegitimate children should not be deprived of the right to a father, his name and his inheritance any more. “The wealthy, childless Epicurean definitely considers it comfortable to enlarge his poorer neighbor’s family. However, if there is a law that authorizes a poor man's wife to force the rich to acknowledge his children, the bonds of society will quickly be strengthened and morals will improve.” Did Olympe have her own parentage in mind?  Her childhood memories might still have been a painful memory.

In terms of children, assets or education, Olympe’s concern is that justice and law should strive for the improvement of human relations. And just how serious she is about the legal equality of the sexes is shown clearly in Article 10 of her Declaration of the Rights of Women, stating the case for freedom of speech: “The woman has the right to ascend the scaffold, equally she should be granted the right to step up to the lectern.” To give speeches at public events did not come natural to her; yet, Olympe de Gouges was never too shy to disseminate her opinion in fliers, posters, in letters and pamphlets.

At the outset of the revolution, still convinced that the “voice of a fair and sentimental woman” would be heard, she turns to the King with petitions and has brochures distributed among representatives and the people. She depletes her assets for the printing costs and when in May, 1789 the Estates-General convene, she has already moved into an apartment on the Boulevard du Roi in Versailles in order to follow the debates closely. She submits her own proposals for how poverty among the people could be alleviated and will notice soon: “The proposals of a woman are met only with contempt; nevertheless it gives me gratification to see when they are implemented.”

She does not have the tone of voice of ideological invulnerability when propagating the overthrow of society. She is disgusted by Robespierre who counts down his revolutionary virtues in speeches lasting for hours. “You, altruistic; you, calm and wise; you, friend of your fellow citizens, friend of peace and order? Remember the maxim: When a villain does good, he will only cause greater havoc.” Olympe de Gouges is battling for a change in the behavior of humans, and at the same time defends old-fashioned and timeless values:  Decency, charity, honor, and every single one of her political publications is an appeal to the sanity of the heart. With her vision of an improvable world she fights against the stream of the utopian visions of the new world.  It is not beyond the human cultural history, in the nondescript wilderness of Rousseau, where she is in search of the earthly paradise. Olympe de Gouges remains femmes galante and femme savante and is reminiscent of ”happy, mythical times” in the past, is also reminiscent of minstrels, wisdom and noble knights who “knew how to defend their motherland and mistress on equal terms”.          

This dream of an enlightened humanity, stemming from an adamantly idealistically exalted past, sharpened Olympe’s perspective on the events in the present, and she has a sense of foreboding like Cassandra had. The massacres of September 1792 are only a prelude to the terror to come. It is on a heap of 1400 massacred courtiers, officers, aristocratic gentlemen, women and children on September 21, 1792 that marks the Year 1 of of the one and indivisible Republic. Since the storming of the Tuileries on August 10, which claimed the lives of thousands of people, the Royal family has been in protective custody at the Temple, the former seat of the congregation of the Templars. The population is eager to see the trial against the King.

“You want to murder Louis the Last in order to avoid that he will be sentenced lawfully” one poster says, put up in the streets of Paris on November 5, addressing Robespierre and that is signed with “Polyme”.  But it is not only the King, it is all political opponents, on whose lives the Incorruptible plans his attempts, as Olympe predicts Robespierre’s reign of terror: “You want to pave your way through heaps of corpses and climb up to the highest power on stairs made from murder and bloodshed.”

At the end of November, Robespierre demands that Louis ought to perish. Did not Louis Capet prove with his attempt to flee in July 1791 that he had disgracefully betrayed the motherland? Did this tyrant not dehumanize himself with his crimes and placed himself outside natural justice? It is a truly cogent and yet quite a paranoid logic, trying to provoke cheap cravings for revenge in order to legitimize political murders. In order to kill the king the whole constitution, which guarantees the integrity of the individual, had to be abrogated.  In order to stop the monstrosity, Olympe de Gouges risks her own head with her next step.  She offers her services as a defense counsel to the Convent and pleas for mercy for his life. Indeed, his deeds are to be condemned, but it is not sufficient to “have a King’s head roll in order to kill him; he will be alive for a long time after his death; but he is really dead when he survives his fall.” King Luis XVI. can only become the citizen Louis Capet by putting him on equal footing with his compatriots.

Olympe Gouges counters blind instincts with the political clarity of reason.  Reason to her means  to recognize the spiritual eminence of the human and the limits of his power: The human is not master over life and death. Therefore, she in principle opposes the death penalty. Even the head of the Jacobin despots should remain “untouched”. Until the very end, Olympe hopes for a “philosophical revolution, worthy of the sacred principles of mankind”.

 In her understanding revolution does not mean a political act of violence but rather a change in consciousness. This, however, as she writes to Queen Marie Antoinette to whom she had dedicated the ” Declaration of the Rights of Women”, will only occur in the future, “when all women will be consumed by their deplorable fate and become aware of their rights in this society.”

Since March 29, 1793 a communiqué has been threatening to inflict the death penalty on those advocating another political system than the one and indivisible Republic – and there is no possibility of appeal against the Revolutionary Tribunal that has been in power since March 10. On June 2, 1793, the Jacobins stage a coup by arresting their last political opponents, the Gironde. Only a short time later the plebiscite is introduced, which lays the foundation to a democratic constitution since the resistance against the Jacobin hegemony had grown stronger in the provinces. In this volatile situation Olympe de Gouge calls for the sovereignty of the people in her essay “The Three Urns, Or The Health Of The Country, By An Aerial Voyager”. She demands that there should be a plebiscite on a choice of three potential forms of government: the one, indivisible Republic, a federalist government or a constitutional monarchy.

“I foresaw it all, I know that my death is inevitable” she already wrote on June 4 in her “Political Testament”. On November 3 she was beheaded under the guillotine. She is taunted by the Feuille du Salut Public only a few days after her execution: “She wanted to be a statesman,” and “Apparently the law punished her for forgetting what is becoming for her sex.” Her confusion, according to the paper, started with her “incoherent rambling …” Together with her printer, Olympe had put up her poster “The Three Urns” on the walls of the houses of Paris herself.  It was a young woman who informed the Gendarmerie.   

The article was published in the German weekly DIE ZEIT, No. 23, June 2, 1989.

Translation by Kai Artur Diers