On this day in 1793, French playwright, journalist, and outspoken feminist Olympe de Gouges was guillotined during the early stages of the Reign of Terror for her revolutionary ideas.
Well ahead of her time both ideologically and professionally, she dared to write plays and publish political pamphlets at a time when women were denied public and political space. Following the publication of a play critical of slavery, she was widely denounced and even threatened for both her anti-slavery stance and her very involvement in the male profession of theatre. Gouges remained defiant, writing “I’m determined to be a success, and I’ll do it in spite of my enemies”. Unfortunately, pressure and outright sabotage from the slavery lobby forced the theatre to abandon her play after just three days.
Initially hopeful that the French Revolution would usher equality between men and women, Gouges became disenchanted and critical upon realizing that the key revolutionary tenant of egalite would not be extended to women. In 1791, in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen—a seminal work in human rights that nonetheless left out women— she wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, which proposed full legal, social, and political equality between men and women. She also published her “Social Contract”, named after a famous work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, calling for marriage based upon gender equality.
These writings, as well as her call for a constitutional monarchy instead of a republic, led to her being tried, convicted, and executed for treason—one of only three women to be killed during the Reign of Terror, and the only one executed for her political writings.
Nonetheless, Gouges’ legacy lived on for decades, influencing women’s rights movements across Europe and North America; the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in New York—the first convention dedicated to women’s rights—based its “Declaration of Sentiments” on her “Declaration of the Rights of Woman”.