Women's Rights and the French Revolution: A Biography of Olympe de Gouges by Sophie Mousset

November 10, 2022

Women's Rights and the French Revolution is Sophie Mousset's biography of the playwright and feminist activist Olympe de Gouges.  I first learned about Olympe a long time ago, in a college class on the French Revolution, when we read her most famous work, Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, where she said that women should have the same rights as men, including the right to vote and hold political office.  The document did not have much effect on the leaders of the Revolution, who either ignored Olympe or ridiculed her, but later on it was recognized as a pioneering work of feminist theory, and had a great influence on Mary Wollstonecraft and other early feminists.

Olympe was born Marie Gouze in 1748 in the city of Montauban in southern France.  Her first language was Occitan, the regional language of the south of France, which is actually closer to Catalan than French.  She did not learn French until much later.  Her pseudonym was taken from her mother's name (Anne Olympe).  She was the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman, the Marquis de Pompignan, with whom her mother had an affair, although she was officially  the daughter of her mother's husband, a butcher.  Mousset writes as if it were a fact that Olympe was Pompignan's daughter, but I have read elsewhere that her paternity is in doubt.  Certainly Olympe believed she was Pompignan's daughter, whatever the truth may be.  She corresponded with Pompignan as if she were his daughter, and later she fictionalized this correspondence in her first literary work, an epistolary novel, in which she mentions the fact that her siblings looked like their father, the butcher, while she did not.  During the Revolution she became an advocate for the right of illegitimate children to bear their fathers' names and inherit from them.  Her own experiences growing up certainly influenced her thinking.

Olympe did not receive any formal education, and learned only the basics of reading and writing.  Later, her detractors said she could not read and write at all, which is untrue, because she wrote many plays and other literary works, even though it is true that the early ones might have been dictated to someone.  She always regretted her lack of education, and believed that women should have the same education as men.

At the age of seventeen, Olympe was married off to Louis Yves Aubry, a man she never loved, and who was of a lower social class than she was.  As Mousset says, it was very unusual for a woman of the time to marry a man of a lower social class.  No one knows why Olympe's mother forced her into the marriage.  A year later, her son, Pierre Aubry, was born.  Not long after her son's birth, her husband was killed in a flood, and she never remarried.  The disastrous experience of her marriage led Olympe to become an advocate for divorce during the Revolution.  Mousset does not tell us much about Olympe's son and what their relationship was like, except that it seems they became somewhat estranged, and that Olympe's son joined the army during the Revolution.

Shortly after her husband's death, Olympe began an affair with a wealthy merchant, and she and her son moved to Paris with him.  She enjoyed the social life of Paris, and became famous for her beauty.  Olympe frequented the leading salons of the Enlightenment and met the famous philosophers and literary figures of the time.  In the early 1780s, she became an author.  Her first work was the autobiographical epistolary novel mentioned above, then she turned to writing for the theater.  She wrote over forty plays, most of which were never performed.  Some were published, but not performed.  She did have several plays produced at Paris' leading theater, the Comédie-Française, the best known of which was Zamore et Mirza, an anti-slavery play.  Olympe was always a strong abolitionist.  Unfortunately, many powerful people at the time were pro-slavery, and they tried to block her play from being performed.  She took legal action against them and won her case.  Her play was produced, but the pro-slavery people heckled it, and it only ran for three performances.

Another play of Olympe's that was performed in Paris was a sequel to Beaumarchais' The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro.  Copyright laws at the time were not as strong as they are now, and so people often wrote sequels to other people's works, without the original author being able to prevent it.  Beaumarchais did not approve, though, and he was somewhat of an adversary to Olympe in Paris' theater world.

When the Revolution began, Olympe turned from writing plays to writing political pamphlets and treatises.  She was a supporter of the early Revolution and took the opportunity to write on behalf the poor and the oppressed, as well as becoming an advocate for women's rights and the abolition of slavery.  Olympe also attended the meetings of revolutionary societies, at least the ones that would admit women.

She was disappointed, though, in the misogyny of many of the revolutionaries.  The famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was clearly meant only for male people.  While women gained some rights under the revolutionary government, including the right to initiate a divorce and to own property separately from their husbands, they never gained political and voting rights.  In fact, it was not until the 1940s that women in France gained the right to vote.  This lack of political rights led Olympe to write her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, which is reproduced in full in Mousset's book.  In it, Olympe follows the text of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, article by article, but adds what must be done so that women would have equal rights.  Needless to say, the revolutionary leaders did not take it well, and they mocked Olympe and dismissed her as a hysterical woman.

Olympe was always a supporter of a constitutional monarchy, and did not approve when the Revolution took a more radical turn.  She was appalled by the violence of the Terror, and wrote against Robespierre and Marat.  She especially hated Marat, who was one of the most bloodthirsty of the revolutionary leaders.  After Louis XVI was deposed, she offered to defend him at his trial.  Of course, the National Convention did not take her offer seriously.  Olympe thought Louis was a weak king, but felt sympathy for him and Marie-Antoinette as people.  During the split between the moderate Girondins and the radical Jacobins, Olympe sided with the Girondins.

During the Terror, Olympe's pamphlets got her into trouble.  She had the courage to write a pamphlet against Robespierre, in which she predicted that he would send many people to the guillotine, and much of what she said proved true.  She also thought that many of the people of France did not really want Robespierre and the Jacobins as their leaders, and she published a pamphlet that called for a referendum in which the people would choose between three types of government: a constitutional monarchy, a federalist republic, or a unified republic (which was the type of government that Robespierre favored).  It was this pamphlet that proved the last straw as far as the Jacobins were concerned, and Olympe was imprisoned and tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal.  Although she defended herself well, the outcome was inevitable, and she was guillotined in November 1793, only a few weeks after Marie-Antoinette.  She was not forgotten, though.  Her Declaration had a huge influence on Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman and on later feminism.

At only 108 pages, Mousset's book is very brief and, unfortunately, does not give the reader much of a sense of Olympe as a person.  But I recommend it because it is practically the only book in English about this remarkable, courageous woman.  It is translated from French, and sometimes the translation does not read very well.  Also, it seems to rely heavily on a French biography by Olivier Blanc.  I hope that, one day, more will be written in English about Olympe de Gouges, but for now this is just about the only biography available unless you read French.  Certainly it provides a glimpse of this amazing woman and her times.

Women's Rights and the French Revolution is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.