The Crest of the Wave: Olympe de Gouges and Early Feminism in France

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The Crest of the Wave: Olympe de Gouges and Early Feminism in France
The history of feminism offers a rich chronicle of the social, ideological, and political movements whose goal is securing equal rights for women. Long before what is considered the First Wave of Feminism of the 19th century, there was one French woman whose singular voice not only argued for equality between the sexes, but against injustice, discrimination, and oppression in all its forms. That woman was Olympe de Gouges, who believed women should be allowed a worthwhile role in society, and called for reasonable divorce laws to protect them and their children from impoverishment. She vehemently opposed slavery and the death penalty. She discovered her political voice by writing over 40 works: essays, manifestos, literary treatises, political pamphlets and socially conscious plays that highlighted her strong conviction that the power of drama could encourage political change. She never let the bigotries of her time, the aspersions cast by her critics, or the dangers implicit in being outspoken during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror (1793-1794), silence her. She was guillotined in Paris on the 3rd of November, 1793 at the age of 45. Born in 1748, in the southwestern French city of Montauban, Marie Gouze was the youngest of Pierre Gouze and Anne-Olympe Mouisset’s four children. Throughout her life she believed her real father was Jean-Jacques Le Franc, the Marquis de Pompignan, Chief Justice of Montauban, who was rumored to have been her mother’s lover. He was also a man of letters who published a considerable output of plays, poems, literary criticism, essays and highly regarded English translations of the classics. Conceding to the mores of her day, Marie was married at the age of 17 to an innkeeper, Louis-Yves Aubry. They had one son, Pierre, before she was widowed. By the age of 22, Marie was admired as one of the most beautiful, intelligent and spirited women in Montauban. Without any viable prospects for her future, she decided to move to Paris with her son, reinventing herself as “Olympe de Gouges”. Even though she could not lay claim to her biological father’s name or heritage, she established herself within the fixed Parisian social hierarchy as a widow of noble origins. According to her biographer, Olivier Blanc, she met a wealthy man, Jacques Biétrix de Rozières, with whom she had a long relationship. Through this association, she was received into the many artistic, philosophical and literary salons that espoused the ideas of the Enlightenment, which synthesized the virtue of being a rational, thinking individual with a compassionate soul and ethical conscience regardless of gender, race or rank in society. These ideals based on natural justice, eventually merging with the French citizenry’s demand for liberty and equality, profoundly impacted Olympe and formed the foundation of her political activism. It was after attending one of the literary salons of the Marquise de Montesson (the morganatic wife of the Duc de Orléans) that Olympe was invited to the Comédie- Française. After a night at the theater, patrons often met at the gambling tables of the Palais Royal, owned by the Duc du Orléans, to engage in lively, opinionated discussions about provocative issues of the times. Freedom of thought was routine. There she met the writer, Louis Sébastian Mercier (1740-1814), who became one of her closest friends. As kindred spirits, they philosophized about everything: not just literature and politics, but the meaning of being, life after death and the transmigration of souls. Both believed the mind was neutral, neither male nor female. Olympe evolved into a staunch critic of the principles of equality and she worked to claim the rightful place of slaves and women within its protection. Over the remaining nine years of her life, Olympe became engaged in almost any matter she believed involved injustice. By 1784, the year of Marquis de Pompignan’s death, she felt ready to carry on the intellectual legacy of her putative biological father. Her first play, an anti-slavery drama, was accepted by the Comédie-Française and produced as “L’Esclavage des Nègres“, Slavery of the Negroes, written in protest of the government which wanted to abolish slavery in France, but not in its colonies. At the premiere abolitionists and supporters of colonialism started fist fights and the play was quickly cancelled. By writing numerous plays about the topics of slavery and women’s rights, the issues she brought up were spread not only through France, but also throughout Europe and the newly created United States of America. France’s costly involvement in the American Revolution and extravagant spending by King Louis XVI (1754-1793) and his predecessors, had left the country on the brink of bankruptcy while most of its citizens languished in poverty. A number of lean harvests led to widespread hunger and starvation, and the ever-constant threat of epidemics resulted in a tinderbox situation. In May of 1789 the King called a meeting of the Estates General (representatives of the three estates: the clergy, the nobility, and commoners) in order to resolve the French monarchy’s financial crisis by the most expedient means possible – the raising of taxes. But the meeting ended in conflict because the nobility and clergy refused to pay their fair share of taxes. By doing so they destabilized an already fragile society and increased the political anxiety of the common people. When they were barred from attending the next Estates General meeting in June, it was the last straw. By the first week of July they had formed the National Constituent Assembly and became the effective government of France. Never too shy to express her opinion, Olympe was convinced that the voice of a fair minded person should be heard. She turned to the King, submitting her…
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Lead photo credit : Olympe de Gouge by Alexander Kucharsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures into Gascony, the Pays Basque and Provence. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.

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Comments

  • Bear Kosik
    2018-11-02 07:26:51
    Bear Kosik
    This is an outstanding article that covers the history and Madame de Gouges life thoroughly. I have written a play in which Sophie de Condorcet arranges for Olympe de Gouges to meet Maximilien de Robespierre the day before the Terror began with the attack on the Brissonists in the Convention. I haven't found an opportunity to have it produced just yet--I have been busy getting a book on democracy out that includes a chapter on women in politics and other projects. If anyone is interested in reading the play, please contact me. And yes, this is a bit of a marketing of my work.

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  • Alison
    2018-05-31 04:37:57
    Alison
    Could anyone with information about descendants of Olympe please email me. Two grand-daughters have descendants in America and Australia. Three grandsons in France had children but we have little information about them and are unaware of any descendants alive today. In Australia there are many descendants, including my family and relatives . Email: [email protected]

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  • Jetagain
    2017-03-10 21:26:59
    Jetagain
    This was a great article--entertaining and enlightening. I hope "Bonjour Paris" publishes more writing like this.

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  • Allegra
    2017-03-09 13:22:22
    Allegra
    There is a much more influental woman: madame de Stael (1766-1817) whose writings on politics and the independence of women gave her that great asset for immortality: an important enemy, in her case Napoleon himself. He hated and feared her, drove her out of Paris, indeed out of France, confiscated her books while she famous all over Europe united Napoleon´s enemies with her writings and belief in democracy. She was widely read all through the 19th century by women in particular whose dream of freedom through writing she inspired. Less known is her political philosophy and awareness of the limited impact upon reality of notions such as liberty progress or moderation. All her life she argued patiently with sovereigns, ministers and generals affecting ti ignore their lies and duplicity hammering on regardless in the hope that some shred of reason might filter through to them.

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  • Felipe Adan Lerma
    2017-03-09 12:59:32
    Felipe Adan Lerma
    Wow, great article - so good to read of things I had no idea existed and how important they are today - thank you!

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  • Bear Kosik
    2017-03-02 14:15:47
    Bear Kosik
    I began writing a play about Olympe de Gouges in January in which Sophie de Condorcet has arranged for her to meet Robespierre the day before Robespierre undermines the Girondists. Her "Three Urns" was an elegant effort to lay out the possibilities for the French Republic and have value in the current situation with democracy in the USA. Unfortunately, the Jacobins under Robespierre were not interested in choices, just as President Trump and the GOP refuse any options but the ones they offer.

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  • Jennifer
    2017-02-27 03:48:15
    Jennifer
    Wonderful article! I've recently done some research on this amazing woman. However, that is an incorrect photo of la Place Olympe de Gouges in Paris.

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