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Olympe de Gouges and the Rights of Woman

Women's Rights in the French Revolution


French Revolution - after a painting by Pierre Antoine De Machy

French Revolution - after a painting by Pierre Antoine De Machy

© 2009 Jupiterimages. Used with permission.

Beginning with the French Revolution and the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" in 1789, until 1944, French citizenship was limited to males -- even though women were active in the French Revolution, and many assumed that citizenship was theirs by right of their active participation in that historic liberation battle.

Olympe de Gouges, a playwright of some note in France at the time of the Revolution, spoke for not only herself but many of the women of France, when in 1791 she wrote and published the "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen." Modeled on the 1789 "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" by the National Assembly, de Gouges' Declaration echoed the same language and extended it to women, as well.

As many feminists have done since, de Gouges both asserted woman's capability to reason and make moral decisions, and pointed to the feminine virtues of emotion and feeling. Woman was not simply the same as man, but she was his equal partner.

The French version of the titles of the two declarations makes this mirroring a bit clearer. In French, de Gouges' manifesto was the "Déclaration des Droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne" -- not just Woman contrasted with Man, but Citoyenne contrasted with Citoyen.

Unfortunately, de Gouges assumed too much. She assumed she had the right to even act as a member of the public and to assert the rights of women by authoring such a declaration. She violated boundaries that most of the revolutionary leaders wanted to preserve.

Among the challenges in de Gouges' Declaration was the assertion that women, as citizens, had the right to free speech, and therefore had the right to reveal the identity of the fathers of their children -- a right which women of the time were not assumed to have. She assumed a right of children born out of legitimate marriage to full equality to those born in marriage: this called into question the assumption that only men had the freedom to satisfy their sexual desire outside of marriage, and that such freedom on the part of men could be exercised without fear of corresponding responsibility. It also called into question the assumption that only women were agents of reproduction -- men, too, de Gouges' proposal implied, were part of the reproduction of society, and not just political, rational citizens. If men were seen sharing the reproduction role, then perhaps, women should be members of the political and public side of society.

For asserting this equality, and repeating the assertion publicly -- for refusing to be silent on the Rights of Woman -- and for associating with the wrong side, the Girondists, as the Revolution became embroiled in new conflicts -- Olympe de Gouges was arrested in July 1793, four years after the Revolution. She was sent to the guillotine in November of that year.

A report of her death at the time said:

Olympe de Gouges, born with an exalted imagination, mistook her delirium for an inspiration of nature. She wanted to be a man of state. She took up the projects of the perfidious people who want to divide France. It seems the law has punished this conspirator for having forgotten the virtues that belong to her sex.

In the midst of a Revolution to extend rights to more men, Olympe de Gouges had the audacity to argue that women, too, should benefit. Her contemporaries were clear that her punishment was, in part, for forgetting her proper place and proper role as a woman.

Recommended reading

For more information on Olympe de Gouges and early feminist sentiment in France, I recommend the following two (print) books:

Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man
Joan Wallach Scott. Hardcover (also in paperback); 1996.
Excellent treatment of Olympe de Gouges in the French Revolution, Jeanne Deroin in the Revolution of 1848, Hubertine Auclert and the Third Republic, Madeleine Pelletier in the early 20th century, and women in France after winning the vote in 1944.
(Compare Prices)

A History of Women Vol 4: Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War
Genevieve Fraisse and Michelle Perrot, editors
This translation of an excellent European women's history begins with the French Revolution inaugurating the modern period.
(Compare Prices)

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