On this day in 1793, French playwright, journalist, and outspoken feminist Olympe de Gouges (born Marie Gouze) published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, hoping to expose the failures of the French Revolution to recognize gender equality.
Initially hopeful that the French Revolution would usher equality between men and women, Gouges became disenchanted upon discovering 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—an otherwise seminal work in human rights— she wrote a counter-declaration that proposed full legal, social, and political equality between men and women. She also published her treatise, Social Contract, named after the famous work of Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, calling for marriage based upon gender equality.
Even before the revolution, Gouges was well ahead of her time both ideologically and professionally. She dared write plays and publish political pamphlets at a time when women were denied full participation in the public and political space. After releasing a play critical of slavery, she was widely denounced and even threatened for both her anti-slavery stance and being involved in the male profession of theatre in the first place. Gouges remained defiant: “I’m determined to be a success, and I’ll do it in spite of my enemies”. Unfortunately, threats and outright sabotage from the slavery lobby forced the theatre to abandon her play after just three days.
Heck, even her name was an act of defiance against prevailing social norms, as explained by Columbia College:
…Gouges took on her mother’s middle name, changed the spelling of her father’s and added the aristocratic “de.” Adding to this already audacious gesture, the name “Gouges” may also have been a sly and provocative joke. The word “gouge” in Occitan was an offensive slang term used to refer to lowly, bawdy women.
Unsurprisingly, once the French Revolution came into full swing, Gouges wasted no time in seizing the moment. Aside from her already-bold feminist views, she rigorously supported a wage of policies and rights that proved radical even for the revolution:
She produced numerous broadsides and pamphlets between 1789 and 1792 that called for, among other things, houses of refuge for women and children at risk; a tax to fund workshops for the unemployed; the legitimation of children born out of wedlock; inheritance equality; the legalization and regulation of prostitution; the legalization of divorce; clean streets; a national theater and the opening of professions to everyone regardless of race, class or gender. She also began to sign her letters “citoyenne,” the feminine version of the conventional revolutionary honorific “citoyen.”
Gouges’ opposition to the revolution’s growing and bloody radicalism, and support for a constitutional monarchy, put a target on her back. Above all she openly disliked, Maximillian Robespierre, in effect the most powerful man in the country, going so far as to use the informal tu when referring to him in an open letter. This proved the last straw; she was tried, convicted, and executed for treason as one of only three women to be executed during the Reign of Terror, and the only one executed for her politics.
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”.