Born in 1748 — the bastard daughter of a butcher — Marie Gouze had even fewer rights than most French women of her class. Her petite bourgeois family kept her from absolute poverty, but “illegitimate” birth condemned her to low social status. In any case, girls from the provinces rarely gained the opportunity to achieve any kind of distinction.
Marie’s escape came via an arranged marriage to a minor government official from Paris deployed to her small town. She remembered, “I was married to a man I did not love and who was neither rich nor well-born. I was sacrificed for no reason that could make up for the repugnance I felt for this man.” During their one-year union, Marie gave her husband a child, and he reciprocated by dying.
Now liberated, the young widow inherited enough assets to finance a move to Paris in 1766.
There, she reinvented herself as Olympe de Gouges, a playwright and the world’s first feminist intellectual. Amid the cultural ferment of the late Ancien Régime, her scripts condemned slavery and promoted women’s rights.
With the outbreak of the French Revolution, de Gouges plunged into explicit activism. After sidelining King Louis XVI, the Constituent Assembly outlined male liberties in the 1789 “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.”
Noting a glaring omission, de Gouges responded in 1791 with the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizeness.”
In the first section, she asserted, “This revolution will only take effect when all women become fully aware of their deplorable condition, and of the rights they have lost in society.”
With those last few words, de Gouges expanded Enlightenment philosophy. Conventional scholars believed that men began in a state of nature, possessing natural rights to life, liberty and property — liberties later usurped by tyrannical governments. Here, de Gouges implied that women in a state of nature had enjoyed precisely the same freedoms as men, and had been robbed of them with equal injustice.
Next, she demanded to know the empirical basis for male claims of superiority:
“Man, are you capable of being just? It is a woman who poses the question; you will not deprive her of that right, at least. Tell me, what gives you sovereign empire to oppress my sex? Your strength? Your talents? Observe the Creator in his wisdom; survey in all her grandeur that nature with whom you seem to want to be in harmony, and give me, if you dare, an example of this tyrannical empire. Go back to animals, consult the elements, study plants, finally glance at all the modifications of organic matter, and surrender to the evidence when I offer you the means; search, probe, and distinguish, if you can, the sexes in the administration of nature. Everywhere you will find them mingled; everywhere they cooperate in harmonious togetherness in this immortal masterpiece.
“Man alone has raised his exceptional circumstances to a principle. Bizarre, blind, bloated with science and degenerated — in a century of enlightenment and wisdom — into the crassest ignorance, he wants to command as a despot a sex which is in full possession of its intellectual faculties; he pretends to enjoy the Revolution and to claim his rights to equality in order to say nothing more about it.”
According to de Gouges, women were not merely equal to men, but in fact “superior in beauty as in courage, needed in maternal sufferings….”
Thus, she proclaimed:
“Women are born free and remain equal to men in rights…; the only limit to the exercise of the natural rights of woman is the perpetual tyranny that man opposes to it… these limits must be reformed by the laws of nature and reason.”
Accordingly, de Gouges advocated full political participation for women, including holding public office. Seizing on the irony that the state publicly executed female convicts while custom forbade women to speak in public, she wrote, “Women have the right to mount the scaffold; they must also have the right to mount the rostrum.”
In a stirring postscript, de Gouges addressed women directly, underscoring the opportunity offered by the French Revolution:
“Women, wake up; the tocsin [alarm bell] of reason sounds throughout the universe; recognize your rights. The powerful empire of nature is no longer surrounded by prejudice, fanaticism, superstition, and lies. The torch of truth has dispersed all the clouds of folly and usurpation.”
Ironically, de Gouges noted, the Revolution had done nothing for women but exacerbate their plight:
“Enslaved man has multiplied his force and needs yours to break his chains. Having become free, he has become unjust toward his companion. Oh, women! Women, when will you cease to be blind? What advantages have you gathered in the Revolution? A scorn more marked, a disdain more conspicuous…. Whatever the barriers set up against you, it is in your power to overcome them; you only have to want it.”
Whatever women wanted, the men of the National Assembly rejected de Gouges’ Declaration. As the French Revolution degenerated into bloody chaos, Jacobins targeted her for her feminism, for opposing slavery and capital punishment, and — most of all — for advocating constitutional monarchy. In November 1793 — during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror — these thought crimes brought the world’s first feminist to the guillotine.
Execution silenced de Gouges, but the “tocsin of reason” rang on unabated. Before she died, her Declaration had already inspired Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). In ensuing decades, the arguments of Olympe de Gouges influenced the rhetoric of women’s rights movements across Europe and North America.
The torch of truth still burned; a provincial butcher’s bastard daughter had irrevocably awakened the women of the world.