Birthday: May 7, 1748
Died At Age: 45
Sun Sign: Taurus
Also Known As: Marie Gouze
Born Country: France
Born in: Montauban, France
Famous as: Playwright
Spouse/Ex-: Louis Aubry
father: Gouze Pierre
mother: Anne-Olympe Mouisset
children: Pierre Aubry de Gouges
Died on: November 3, 1793
place of death: Place de la Concorde, Paris, France
Olympe de Gouges was a French social reformer and writer who stressed on women’s rights as citizens. She was also a political and social activist who wrote several plays and pamphlets supporting her cause. Her most prominent work was the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen,’ as a response to the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the (Male) Citizen.’ Her works saw her denounce extremists, both the royalists and the revolutionaries. She advocated for a healthy government, but was charged with sedition because of her outspoken nature. Following a short trial, she was guillotined to death. She is remembered as a pioneer of women’s rights movements, and is said to have inspired many young feminists and writers to follow in her footsteps.
Childhood & Early Life
Marie-Olympe de Gouges was born Marie Gouze, on May 7, 1748, in Montauban, Quercy (present-day Tarn-et-Garonne), in southwestern France, to Anne Olympe Mouisset Gouze, a maidservant, and Pierre Gouze, a butcher.
Some sources claim that she was probably an illegitimate child and that Jean-Jacques Lefranc (or Le Franc), marquis de Pompignan, was probably her biological father.
She was also said to be the illegitimate daughter of King Louis XV by some sources. She responded with vague answers whenever she was asked about her parents. Pierre Gouze died when she was 2 years old.
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Early Career in Paris
After marrying a man against her will and having a child, she abandoned her son and went to Paris in 1770, to become a writer. She adopted the pseudonym “Olympe de Gouges,” which had both her parents’ names.
While she continued to network, she decided not to remarry. She became a mistress of many men of high social rank and dedicated a lot of time to writing. She wrote plays, novels, and pamphlets. Two of her major dramatic works were ‘Le Mariage inattendu de Chérubin’ and ‘Zamore et Mirza ou l'Heureux naufrage.’
Though her verbose writing was criticized initially, she soon graduated to a more productive phase of her career. She took advantage of the revolutionary surge in France, in the late 1780s, and wrote many socio-political pamphlets and political essays from 1788 to 1791, such as ‘Cry of the Wise Man, by a Woman’ and ‘To Save the Fatherland.’
In 1788, she wrote the pamphlet ‘Reflections on Blacks’ and the play titled ‘l'Esclavage des Noirs’ (on the slave trade). In November that year, Olympe released her first political manifesto, titled ‘Letter to the People, or Project for a Patriotic Fund.’
She made an effort to portray both the monarchists and the revolutionaries in bad light and denounced extremism. However, she soon came to be known as a royalist.
Her 1788 work ‘Droits de la femme’ showcased her sympathy for the French royals. She also published ‘Patriotic Remarks’ that year. In the book, she advocated for social reforms and supported the destruction of the monarchial government. It also highlighted how the elite social class abused power. She also released the political satire ‘Project of a Patriotic Case by Citoyenne.’
She soon supported French king Louis XVI’s abdication and the rise of a regent government. By then, Bastille had fallen and the revolution was at its peak. Olympe was a royalist till Louis XVI’s escape from France. Soon, her political writings began supporting the revolutionaries.
The Declaration of the Rights of Woman
When in October 1789, the French Revolution reached its peak, Olympe proposed a set of reforms to the ‘French National Assembly,’ consisting of the country's new leaders. She suggested legal equality of men and women, better job prospects for women, a legal alternative to the dowry system, women’s education rights, and the creation of a national theater that would host plays exclusively written by women.
Olympe’s writings mostly focused on civil rights, especially the rights of women. A prominent women rights organization of the period, the ‘Society of Republican and Revolutionary Women,’ had members who encouraged Olympe to create a document that could be used as a declaration of rights for women.
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She soon began writing it, and it was published in September 1791, as the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen’ (‘Déclaration of the Droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne’). It was some sort of a response to the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen,’ published in 1789.
Olympe, in her declaration, demanded full freedom of speech, voting rights, and the opportunity to hold public office. She dedicated it to Queen Marie Antoinette, hoping that she would get the queen’s support.
The ‘Declaration’ has a preamble, 17 articles, and an epilogue. The epilogue asked all women to “wake up.”
The Accusation of Sedition & the Trial
Olympe was eventually arrested for her outspoken nature. The government that rose to power after the fall of the monarchy was intolerant to criticism. Till then, Olympe felt she could speak for the rights of women and of citizens.
However, in her outspokenness, she once criticized Maximilien Robespierre, the leader of the newly formed government, in ‘Pronostic de Monsieur Robespierre pour an animal amphibie.’ This, coupled with her earlier support of King Louis XVI, made the authorities accuse her of sedition.
Olympe was charged with sedition on July 25, 1793, after being accused of writing anti-government works. A day after she was taken captive, her works were reviewed by a public prosecutor.
On August 6, 1793, her interrogation began. Following this, it was proved by the authorities that she had provoked a civil war in the country.
She was branded a "criminal," with "hidden motives" against the citizens of France and with the intention of re-establishing the monarchial government. Following her trail, she was found guilty and was condemned to death.
In her last attempt to escape being guillotined, Olympe claimed to be pregnant. However, after a medical examination, her claim was found to be false.
Family, Personal Life & Death
In 1765, when she was still in her teenage years, Olympe was married off against her wishes, to Louis Aubrey. Some believe Louis was a caterer, while others say he was a French officer. They had a son 2 years later, but it is believed her husband died later, following which she changed her name from “Marie” to “Olympe de Gouges” and moved to Paris, vowing not to marry again.
In Paris, she was in a relationship with Jacques Biétrix de Rozières, an affluent man. However, she rejected his marriage proposal. She maintained her relationship with Rozières throughout the French Revolution and also built a theater company with his help.
On November 3, 1793, she was guillotined in Paris, because of an alleged act of sedition. Some sources claim that her last words were: "Children of the Fatherland, you will avenge my death." She was probably buried in a communal grave.
Her execution was used by the authorities as a warning for other women in politics. However, her ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman’ became reproduced widely. It is said to have inspired Mary Wollstonecraft to publish the ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ in 1792.
Olympe signed her public letters with “citoyenne,” the female version of the word “citizen.” Much later, American women started calling themselves “cites,” or “citizeness,” and began marching for freedom.
At the ‘Women's Rights Convention’ at Seneca Falls, in 1848, the style of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman’ was used to paraphrase the ‘Declaration of Independence’ into the ‘Declaration of Sentiments,’ which asked for women’s voting rights. In the 1980s, a political biography by Olivier Blanc spoke about Olympe’s struggle.
On March 6, 2004, the junction of the Rues Béranger, Charlot, de Turenne, and de Franche-Comté in Paris was named the “Place Olympe de Gouges.”
Many streets in France, the ‘Salle Olympe de Gouges’ exhibition hall in Paris, and the ‘Parc Olympe de Gouges’ in Annemasse have been named in her honor.