An Unfortunate Time of Prejudice
Olympe de Gouges was born to Anne Olympe Mouisset Gouzes and Pierre Gouzes, who was a local butcher on May 7, 1748, but some (including herself) suspect the real father was Jean-Jacques Lefranc, which is also backed by other sources. Olympe was born to a middle class family and married when she was sixteen against her will. Her marriage didn’t last due to her husband, Louis Aubrey, a caterer, dying soon after she gave him their child. A little while later, she moved to Paris and vowed never to marry again. In Paris, she and a new friend founded a theatre company and she wrote plays about how all men, slave or not, always should have the same rights. A notable play was “L’Esclavage des noirs” (“Slavery of Blacks”) when, after the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (modern day Haiti) in 1790-91, she publically went out and opposed violent revolution.
For that, she was ridiculed by other members of her society and was told over and over her opinion didn’t matter because she is a woman. As an advocate of human rights, she didn't oppose the French Revolution, but when she ascertained that women will still not get the same rights as men she accepted the change with bitterness and disenchantment. In 1791, she became associated with the Amis de la Verité group which is also known as “Society of the Friends of Truth” which had the goals of equal political and legal rights for women. Her most notable piece that has been attributed to her legacy was written in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. She was famous for the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, which included her famous statement:
“A woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker's platform."
Shortly after, the slave revolt in modern day Haiti caught fire and eventually led to an abolition of slavery for Saint-Domingue. But at the cost of thousands of lives. Olympe disapproved of violent revolution but when her play was staged in Paris in December of 1792, a riot began. As a supporter of the constitutional monarchy and against capital punishment (death penalty), she was in strong opposition to King Loius XVI’s execution. When the king was going to be put on trial, she wrote to the National Assembly offering to defend him, causing outrage from her enemies. She argued he was guilty as a king, but not as a man, and deserved to be exiled, not executed.
Olympe became associated with the Girondin Party, which also favored a constitutional monarchy and opposed the Jacobins and Robespierre. However, as the Revolution progressed, the Jacobins (the main club in charge of the revolution) took over and Robespierre became more and more rampant. Girondins were hunted down to be sent to mock trials that eventually led to execution by guillotine for different ideals. The last straw for Olympe de Gouges was a poster calling for a plebiscite, which was a vote of the ideals of the whole nation to decide the issue of power within France. On November 3, 1793, the Jacobins sentenced her to death by execution for seditious behavior including the plea to reinstate the monarchy, only three days later when the Girondist leaders were executed themselves. Olympe de Gouges was an idealist who spoke for her beliefs in a treacherous time when radicals were against women as a whole. She paid with her head for her beliefs like many as brave as her did.
Olympe lived in the time prior to the French Revolution (also known as the Reign of Terror). At this time in history in France, new ideas were strictly frowned upon, especially the ideas regarding slaves and women having equal rights. Olympe left her legacy as standing up for her beliefs and supporting them to the grave like many others in her time period. She went down fighting, as they say. She was a member of society that contributed something unique to her country of France, an idea that supported a better future. Unfortunately, this time period was not kind to her as the Jacobin Club wanted their influence to extend to everyone, including those who were unwilling to accept it.
Olympe was one of the first recorded women to actively fight for women’s rights. She is recognized by her work: Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen and her negative beliefs towards discrimination, violence, and oppression. She battled against the justice system of eighteenth-century France, she pleaded against slavery and the death penalty, and most notably, the role of women in France and other nations. She called for trials to be decided by evidence and a jury, and fair divorce laws that protected women and children from penury. She also was brave enough to write plays and scripts highlighting the flaws which she believed needed to be revised in society. She died a martyr, but her ideals only continued to flourish and led to women’s rights being granted, slavery being abolished, trials being balanced, and laws that were fair.