Olympe de Gouges: The Revolutionary Feminist Who Fought for Women’s Rights and Paid the Ultimate Price

  In France more than 230 years ago, a woman who was the first to advocate gender equality was pushed to the guillotine. This outstanding woman who made great contributions to the progress of human history not only failed to receive due respect at the time, but was repeatedly reviled and slandered by the powerful. Even the French of later generations rarely knew her heroic deeds. Fortunately, she wrote a series of plays, novels and pamphlets during her lifetime, so that her indomitable soul can be resurrected by these surviving works. After more than 200 years of long years, scholars who study the development of human civilization have discovered a different kind of her in the historical records—the world’s first heroine Olympus Degouge (1748— 1793).
The Mystery of Life Experience and the Pain of Marriage

  De Gouges, formerly known as Marie Guz, was born in the town of Montauban, in the province of Southwest Quécy (now Tarn-Garonne), France. Her mother, Anne, had been a maid in a wealthy family. Who is her father? It’s troublesome to say. Her nominal father is the small-town butcher Pierre Gouz, who is Anne’s second husband. However, De Gouges disclosed the secret of her life experience in an epistolary semi-autobiographical novel she published. She said that she was the illegitimate daughter of her mother and her lover.
  In 1765, 17-year-old Mary was born into a beautiful girl, ushering in a major turning point in her life—marriage. But she was born at an untimely time, in a patriarchal era, and the marriages of children were all dominated by parents. So Mary was forced to marry a restaurant owner 30 years her senior because he was a regular customer in her butcher father’s business. The next year, she gave birth to a boy. In November of that year, her husband died in a flood, and she became a little widow.
  The text left by De Gouges did not give much introduction to this short-lived married life, but only wrote: “I married a man I did not love, he was neither rich nor well-born. The reason why I was sacrificed can’t make up for my disgust for this man.” Therefore, she did not keep her husband’s surname after her husband’s death, and abandoned her former life together with the name Mary Guz, and chose her mother’s name He took “Olanpu” as his surname and started a new life with the name “Olanpu Degouge”.
  Around 1770, De Guta took his young son and moved to Paris from Montauban to join his sister. After this naturally handsome girl appeared in Paris, her whereabouts immediately attracted people’s attention. When she goes in and out of Parisian salons, theaters, galleries, museums, bookstores or on the streets, people around her all like to take a few more glances, and those red men and women who often appear in guest salons held by ladies are very concerned about this sudden change. The pretty girl who came out was especially interesting: where did she come from? What kind of family background do you have? Curious people speculate based on the de (“Germany”) in her name that she may be an aristocratic woman from other provinces, because in traditional French customs, de in a surname means a noble blood lineage. But before long, someone with good intentions found out her details, and as a result, there was even more saliva about her.
  The reason why Degouge is eye-catching in Paris is not only because she has an outstanding face, graceful figure and novel dress, she also has some characters that are quite different from urban women: enthusiasm, pungent, studious, and keen Observation and decisive action. She was once called “one of the most beautiful women in Paris”. However, Degouge, who had just entered Paris, felt that she didn’t understand anything: “Fate has plunged me into darkness in the most enlightened century.” So she studied desperately. In addition to reading a lot of famous French Enlightenment thinkers Rousseau, In addition to the works of Voltaire, Diderot and others, he also got acquainted with Brissot and Condorcet, thinkers who were active in French political circles at that time. At the same time, as a playwright, she also went to the high-end salon of the well-known playwright Madame Montesson in Paris and the Countess Du Barry, the maid of Louis XV, where she met Lahap, Mercier and Chauveau. and other well-known writers. As a result, she knew many important national events and the secrets of the French royal family.

“Declaration of the Rights of Woman”

  The more Degouge learns about the world, the more her doubts and troubles increase. In particular, the mystery of her identity is not only a hot topic for outsiders, but also a stagnation deep in her heart that cannot be resolved. The aristocratic biological father that mother Anne told her—the playwright Lefranc was not a hypothetical character fabricated out of thin air. She had contact with him in her childhood and remembered his elegant image. But when she was 9 years old, the man who was promoted to Marquis married a wealthy widow in Paris and cut off contact with their mother and daughter, and there was no mention of legal property compensation. Some researchers speculated that maybe it was because of the betrayal and unfeelingness of the biological father to her mother, the coercion of her adoptive father in her marriage and the husband she hated—these three men caused her to suffer all kinds of tortures in the process of growing up. , which ignited the resentment buried deep in her heart, gave her a strong desire to express it through writing, and finally made her a passionate playwright and a “too revolutionary” feminist.
  However, in Degouge’s life, she did not completely despair of her understanding of men. She still hopes that the two sexes can be friendly, help each other and live in harmony. Just after De Gouges became a widow, her outstanding beauty won her many suitors, including one, Jacques de Rozeles, a senior naval officer from Lyon, who fell in love with her. It was he who helped her move her family from Montauban to Paris and hoped to marry her, but she claimed that marriage was the tomb of trust and love and vowed never to remarry. She remained in a relationship with Rozeles until his death. It is said that the two also jointly operated the Royal Military Material Transport Corps, thus obtaining a reliable financial security in life.
Prolific “illiterate” writer

  How did Degouge, who came to Paris from the countryside, rely on to make a living in the upper class? This issue was once a hot topic of repeated discussion among many gossiping people, and some even suspected that she was a prostitute. People didn’t see her defending her personal life, just the constant stream of her diverse work. Therefore, some people deduce that the greatest capital Degouge possesses is her own courage, wisdom and hard work.
  De Gouges published his first novel “Memoirs of Madame Valmont” when he was 36 years old. In order to respond to people’s gossip about her life experience, she posted some transcripts in the book that were said to be the letters of her biological father, the Marquis Lefranc, to prove that the word “de” in her name is true. In the book, she accused an old noble family of ingratitude and injustice. The beginning of the novel says: “I hope to be able to kill a resentment in my soul”, “My father forgot me in the cradle. This is my fate, and I will also lament the fate of my mother”… Her writer Life begins with this sound of accusation.
  De Gouges’ second novel, The Prince of Philosophy, was published the year before her death. The book shows her thinking about the gender dilemma and an ideal pursuit in the field of political philosophy. Following the unfolding of the story line, she described the living conditions of women in the mythical society, found out the reasons for the lack of unity between the sexes, explained the new concept of women gaining intelligence and growing up on an equal footing with men, and put forward the idea of ​​how to live in society. New ideas on how to foster civic virtue through education.
  After the outbreak of the French Revolution, facing Louis XVI who had high expectations but failed to escape, De Gouges wrote two satirical novels, “The Cry of the Wisdom” and “Salvation of the Fatherland”, expressing her deep worry about the fate of the country.
  As a playwright, Degouge’s achievements in drama creation greatly surpassed her novel creation. De Gouges’s first play, “Zamor and Mirza” (1784, also known as “The Lucky Shipwreck”), tells the story of a shipwreck and reflects a major social issue in Europe —The evil slave trade and the implementation of slavery in the colonies. At that time, De Gouges used a pseudonym to submit the script of this play to the French National Theater for application and passed the review. However, the play had to wait for 5 years before it could be staged, and it was banned after only 3 performances. The dignitaries who were involved in the slave trade and enforced slavery in the East India Company (growing sugar cane) feared that her play would ruin their business. After the play was staged, riots broke out in Paris and Santo Domingo (now Haiti). she. Undeterred, De Gouges wrote her second play, The Black Market, on the theme of abolition. De Gouges wrote about 20 dramas in his life. In addition to the theme of abolition of slavery, there are also dramas against the feudal autocratic system. Among them, the themes reflecting the unfortunate marriage of men and women under the feudal system are the most, through the tragic role conflicts of various women. To express the playwright’s deep sympathy and future expectations for women’s identity.

Olampe Degouge

  Among Degouge’s various works, her political essays and pamphlets discussing topical issues have had the greatest impact on society. She is sensitive to all kinds of ugly phenomena in social life and major events in the Revolution, such as controlled slaves, abused women, embarrassing illegitimate children, unwed mothers in trouble, orphaned children, widows Vulnerable groups such as the elderly, the unemployed and even prisoners are the objects of her keen attention. As long as she sees a problem, she responds as quickly as a war reporter, and a passionate and combative essay flows out of her pen, such as “Thinking About Black People”, “The Necessity of Divorce”, “Patriotism” “Speech” and “Letter to the People” are all political articles with sharp language and criticism of current problems. So she became a cultural celebrity in Paris.
  Of course, these works of Degouge were not accepted by the mainstream culture of the society at that time, especially her stance of calling for gender equality and the abolition of slavery annoyed the men who had dominated the political and literary circles for a long time, which attracted many Taunting and name-calling. For example, theater critic Bernard said that she was pretentious and lost the good qualities of gender; another anonymous critic also wrote: “To write a good play, you need to grow a beard.” In addition to ridicule, more accusations are that De Gouges lacks formal education and restraint, and is illiterate.
  In the face of various criticisms, De Gouges never denied his lack of basic education, but he has always maintained a unique self-confidence. She considered herself as courageous and wise as men, and as capable of taking risks as men.
The “Declaration of the Rights of Woman” calling for gender equality

  In September 1792, the Democratic Republic was established. At that time, Degouge, like the Parisian women who actively participated in the Great Revolution, believed that women would be liberated like men. However, Degouge later discovered the seriousness of the problem-the National Convention in power did not grant women any equal rights. The most obvious manifestation is the lack of citizenship rights for women in the Constitution promulgated in September 1791.
  At that time, among all the public figures and revolutionary leaders in France, only Condorcet advocated that women should have the same rights as men to property, vote, work and receive public education. However, his voice was too weak. Most of them are the voices of men who exclude women, discriminate against women, and “let women go home”. For example, Proudhon, who was the editor-in-chief of the “Paris Revolution” magazine at the time, even asked: “Does the mother of the family still need to use books to raise children?” This report also pointed out: “Don’t train our life partners to be rivals.” From this we can see how difficult it is to change the deep-rooted French patriarchal culture!
  Faced with persistent gender discrimination, De Gouges was very angry. She felt that women should be mobilized to fight for their own rights, and they should not wait for the gifts of men. She carefully studied the content and text of the “Declaration of Human Rights”, and pointed out that the “human rights” in it refers to male rights, and the words used are all masculine. So, on September 14, 1791, De Gouges published a “Declaration of the Rights of Women and Women’s Civil Rights” (referred to as the “Declaration of the Rights of Women”).

Degouge was led to the guillotine

  The original text of this manifesto has five parts: the first part is “A Message to the Queen”, hoping that the Queen can play a role in promoting women’s rights. The second part is “To “Men””, pointing out that in the creation of nature, men and women are equal and complement each other and coexist harmoniously. Men have no reason to issue orders to women like tyrants. The third part is the main body of the Declaration, which has 17 articles in total, corresponding to each article in the Declaration of Human Rights, and clearly puts forward the rights and demands that women should have. The fourth part is “Postscript”, which enumerates various manifestations of feudal ideology poisoning women for a long time, especially the discrimination, taming, oppression and exploitation of women by the traditional marriage system. Coupled with the lack of women’s educational rights, women fail to correctly understand themselves and society, do not understand the real value of women in childbearing, nurturing and housework, and become men’s vassals without self-awareness. In the fifth part, De Gouges set up two alternative models for ideal family life. One is that those who are willing to marry freely should be allowed to divorce freely; the other is that those who give up marriage can be married through civil contract negotiation Life.
  Although Degouge’s declaration failed to obtain any approval from the National Assembly and the government at the time, it was later listed in the world’s famous books and published many times in multiple languages. We can see its influence on the history of human civilization development How deep and broad it is. Regrettably, the awareness of gender equality among the French public lags far behind De Gouges’ footsteps—one and a half centuries later, in 1946, the “New Declaration of Human Rights” promulgated by the French Fourth Republic enabled French women to obtain the same Equal rights for men.

The Revolutionary Unjustly Killed by the Revolutionary Tribunal

  The French Revolution lasted for 10 years, and bloody storms came from time to time. Among them, the period from January 1793 to July 1794 was completely shrouded in the fog of serial massacres. Various people with their own political demands often suspected, accused and killed each other.
  As a woman, Degouge has no position and no power because she is listed as a “passive citizen”, but she is very concerned about the fate of the motherland and always pays attention to the changes in the situation. She always judges right from wrong based on her intuition, and expresses her views on the situation through newspapers, pamphlets or posting posters, calling on the public to save the country and worry about the growing tension. Especially after Louis XVI failed to escape and was escorted back to Paris, all kinds of contradictions emerged around the focal issue of the king “should he be killed or let go”. Although Degouge was an outsider, she was particularly concerned about the king’s life and death. She believed that Louis XVI should be exiled rather than executed. She even expressed her willingness to defend the king. Her words and deeds made the members of the Jacobin faction very angry, thinking that this woman was too arrogant and forgot who she was. After Louis XVI was sent to the guillotine, De Gouges made a series of speeches condemning atrocities, and ridiculed Robespierre’s autocracy and incompetence by name. Therefore, she became a thorn in the side and a thorn in the flesh of the Jacobins.
  On July 13, 1793, an aristocratic woman, Charlotte Coty, assassinated Marat, the main leader of the Jacobins. Although Coty surrendered himself immediately and was executed, many people still suspected that there were more spies. And assassins are hiding around every corner. Suspicion clouded everywhere in Paris, and the situation worsened. De Gouges was very anxious about this, and posted a poster called “Three Ballot Boxes”, asking citizens to vote according to their wishes and choose a government among three possible forms: the first is a republic, and the second is a government. The second is a federal government and the third is a constitutional monarchy. She wants to end assassinations, wars, and anarchy by establishing a government chosen by the people that they like. Her remarks annoyed Robespierre, who was then president of the National Convention, and arrested her on charges of defying the decree of the revolutionary government and splitting the government.

De Gouges Theater

  De Gouges was quickly executed after spending three months in prison. During her interrogation by the Revolutionary Tribunal, she was originally arrested for speaking out about saving the nation, but the public prosecutor weaved multiple “crimes” about her advocacy of women’s rights, including “contempt of the Revolutionary Court” (referring to her mocking at the hearing. judge, shrugs the charges, raises eyebrows and makes various statements, smiles at the audience, etc.). On November 3, 1793, De Gouges was guillotined. She is said to have shouted at the execution ground: “Children of the motherland, you should avenge my death!”
Treasured memories awaken spring of gender equality

  Time has proved Degouge’s innocence. Later, when some scholars studied the history of the French Revolution and De Gouges’ works, they exclaimed that not only was De Gouges not the enemy of the revolution, but she was even “too revolutionary”. Many of her thoughts and actions are far beyond the ordinary people of that era. As a pioneer of the feminist movement, she is not only a brave warrior who stands on her own feet, but also an observant and thoughtful theorist.
  De Gouges saw old and decrepit mothers abandoned, saw hard-working wives being abused at home, and saw childish daughters marrying widowers like goods for sale… Flooding everywhere from the family to the society Gender oppression, filled with the injustice of overbearing parents. De Gouges found the social root of women’s exclusion. She believes that the unfortunate fate of women is caused by weakness and ignorance, and women’s weakness and ignorance are precisely caused by the imprisonment and deprivation of women by harsh patriarchal, husbandly, imperial and divine powers.
  In order to change the unfortunate fate of women, Degouge became a staunch revolutionary. She called on women to recognize the harmonious beauty of nature, to be self-reliant, to love themselves, and to help each other; she called for the freedom of marriage and divorce for men and women; The religious right to marry nuns; call for the recognition of illegitimate children and grant inheritance rights; call for the establishment of maternity hospitals to reduce women’s risks in childbearing and parenting… She hopes that women will be treated well and deserved as mothers, wives and daughters. Some respect. But she is definitely not a narrow-minded ancestor of feminism, but a great social activist and a social reformer who has the courage to practice. She has fought for the ideal society all her life: she called for the abolition of slavery, for the establishment of a voluntary tax system to save the country, for the state to set up institutions to help the unemployed, for the government to provide social services for widows, the elderly and orphans, and for the government to improve the streets. Sanitation, calls for people’s juries for criminal judges, and so on.
  After two centuries of waiting, Degouge’s injustice was finally vindicated. In 1981, the historian Olivier Blanc published a biography, Olymp de Gouges, in which she cleared her grievances using historical archives and various sources from the Revolution. Since then, the number of scholars studying her from all over the world has continued to increase. Her stories have been written into novels, put on stage, screen and video, and won the general respect of the audience. In 2004, Paris opened up the Degouge Square, created the Degouge Exhibition Hall and the Degouge Park to commemorate it. In 2006, the small town of Montauban, her hometown, named a theater after Olampe de Gouges, and people can still see some plays she created in this theater.

De Gouges statue in the hall of the French Parliament

Commemorative gold euro coin with portrait of De Gouges

  De Gouges said in the “Declaration of the Rights of Women” that “a woman has the right to be on the guillotine, and she has the right to be on the podium”, which has become a famous saying in history and is remembered by many people. In October 2016, the French National Assembly installed a granite bust of Degouge in the parliament hall. She was dubbed “French playwright” and “political activist”. A commentator at the time said that having the statue in the halls of Parliament corrected the long-standing historical injustice done to a woman who was ahead of her time.

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