Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Olympe de Gouges and the Rights of Women

Olympe de Gouges (executed 3 November 1793)

Born Marie Gouze in 1748, the woman who would later rename herself as Olympe de Gouges was a passionate advocate for the rights of women and for the children born to unmarried women--she believed herself to be the "illegitimate" daughter of Jean-Jacques le Franc, marquis of Pompagnon.

Married to Louis Aubry in 1765, she would later write, "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." (This is from her 1784 Mémoire de Madame de Valmont, a "fictional autobiography.")

But after Aubry died, Marie Gouze moved to Paris and refashioned herself as Olympe de Gouges. There she threw herself into a wide variety of political causes, many of them focused around marriage, including the idea of civil marriage, divorce, and the rights of women to seek support for their children from those children's fathers, but she also was a forceful opponent of slavery and advocate for the rights of enslaved people.

Gouges wrote some forty works in a variety of genres, notably plays, but also essays, literary treatises, a variety of political pamphlets, and, most memorably, her 1791 "Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne" ("Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen"), modeled on the revolutionary document "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen."

For an excellent overview, I recommend an episode of the BBC's The Forum, "Olympe de Gouges: France's Forgotten Revolutionary Heroine" (to listen, click here).

I'll include the full text here, beginning with Gouges's address to the queen, Marie Antoinette: 

To the Queen
Little accustomed to the language with which one speaks to royalty, I will not employ the adulation of courtiers by dedicating this unusual production to you. My goal, Madam, is to speak to you frankly. I did not wait for the present time of freedom to express myself thus. I declared myself with the same energy when the blindness of despots punished such a noble audacity.
But when all the Empire held you responsible for its calamities, I alone, in a time of disorder and storm, had the force to take your defense. I never could persuade myself that a Princess, high within the state, had all the defects of lowness.
Yes, Madame, when I saw the sword raised against you, I threw my observations between that sword and you, but today when I see who is observed near the crowd of useless hirelings, and [when I see] that she is restrained by fear of the laws, I will tell you, Madame, what I did not say then.
If the foreigner bears arms into France, you are no longer in my eyes this falsely accused Queen, this attractive Queen, but an implacable enemy of the French. Oh, Madame, bear in mind that you are mother and wife; employ all your credit for the return of Princes. This credit, if wisely applied, strengthens the father's crown, saves it for the son, and reconciles you to the love of the French. This worthy negotiation is the true duty of a queen. Intrigue, cabals, bloody projects will precipitate your fall, if it is possible that you are capable of such plots.
Madame, may a noble function characterize you, excite your ambition, and fix your attentions. Only one whom chance has elevated to an eminent position can assume the task of lending weight to the progress of the Rights of Woman and of hastening its success. If you were less well informed, Madame, I might fear that your individual interests would outweigh those of your sex. You love glory; think, Madame, the greatest crimes immortalize one as much as the greatest virtues, but what a different fame in the annals of history! The one is ceaselessly taken as an example, and the other is eternally the execration of the human race.
It will never be a crime for you to work for the restoration of customs, to give your sex all the firmness of which it is capable. This is not the work of one day, unfortunately for the new regime. This revolution will happen only when all women are aware of their deplorable fate, and of the rights they have lost in society. Madame, support such a beautiful cause; defend this unfortunate sex, and soon you will have half the realm on your side, and at least one-third of the other half.
Those, Madame, are the feats by which you should show and use your credit. Believe me, Madame, our life is a pretty small thing, especially for a Queen, when it is not embellished by people's affection and by the eternal delights of good deeds.
If it is true that the French arm all the powers against their own Fatherland, why? For frivolous prerogatives, for chimeras. Believe, Madame, if I judge by what I feel - the monarchical party will be destroyed by itself, it will abandon tyrants, and all hearts will rally around the fatherland to defend it.
There are my principles, Madame. In speaking to you of my fatherland, I lose sight of the purpose of this dedication. Thus, any good citizen sacrifices his glory and his interests when he has none other than those of his country.
I am with the most profound respect, Madame,
Your most humble and most obedient servant,
de Gouges.
The Rights of Woman
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.
Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen
We, mothers, daughters, sisters, [and] representatives of the nation, demand to be constituted into a national assembly. Believing that ignorance, omission, or scorn for the rights of woman are the only causes of public misfortunes and of the corruption of governments, [we] have resolved to set forth a solemn declaration the natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of woman in order that this declaration, constantly exposed before all members of the society, will ceaselessly remind them of their rights and duties; in order that the authoritative acts of women and the authoritative acts of men may be at any moment compared with and respectful of the purpose of all political institutions; and in order that citizens’ demands, henceforth based on simple and incontestable principles, will always support the constitution, good morals, and the happiness of all.
Consequently, the sex that is as superior in beauty as it is in courage during the sufferings of maternity recognizes and declares in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following Rights of Woman and of Female Citizens.
Article 1
Woman is born free and lives equal to man in all rights. Social distinctions can be based only on common utility.
Article II
The purpose of any political association is the conservation of the natural and inalienable rights of woman and man; these rights are liberty, the right to own property, security, and especially the right to resist oppression.
Article III
The principle of all sovereignty rests essentially with the nation, which is nothing but the union of woman and man; no body and no individual can exercise any authority which does not come expressly from it.
Article IV
Freedom and justice consists of giving the other back that what is due to him. Thus, the only limits on the exercise of the natural rights of woman are perpetual male tyranny; these limits are to be reformed by the laws of nature and reason. 
Article V
Laws of nature and reason proscribe all acts harmful to society; everything which is not prohibited by these wise and divine laws cannot be prevented, and no one can be constrained to do what they do not command.
Article VI
The law must be the expression of the general will; all female and male citizens must contribute either personally or through their representatives to its formation; it must be the same for all: male and female citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, must be equally admitted to all honors, positions, and public employment according to their capacity and without other distinctions besides those of their virtues and talents.
Article VII
No woman is an exception; she is accused, arrested, and detained in cases determined by law. Women, like men, obey this rigorous law. 
Article VIII
The law must only impose those penalties that are strictly and obviously necessary and no-one may be punished, except under the force of a valid law which was in force prior to the act, and which can be used legally against women.
Article IX
Once any woman is declared guilty, complete rigor is exercised by law.

Article X
No one is to be disquieted for his very basic opinions; woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum, provided that her demonstrations do not disturb the legally established public order.
Article XI
The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights of woman, since that liberty assures recognition of children by their fathers. Any female citizen thus may say freely, “I am the mother of a child which belongs to you,” without being forced by a barbarous prejudice to hide the truth; [an exception may be made] to respond to the abuse of this liberty in cases determined by law.
Article XII
The guarantee of the rights of woman and the female citizen implies a major benefit; this guarantee must be instituted for the advantage of all, and not for the particular benefit of those to whom it is entrusted.
Article XIII
For the support of the public force and the expenses of administration, the contributions of woman and man are equal; she shares all the duties and all the painful tasks therefore, we must have the same share in the distribution of positions, employment, offices, honors, and jobs.

Article XIV

Female and male citizens have the right to verify, either by themselves of through their representatives, the necessity of the public contribution. This can only apply to women if they are granted an equal share, not only of wealth, but also of public administration, and in the determination of the proportion, the base, the collection, and the duration of the tax.
Article XV
The collectivity of women, joined for tax purposes to the aggregate of men, has the right to demand an accounting of his administration from any public agent.
Article XVI
No society has a constitution without the guarantee of rights and the separation of powers; the constitution is null if the majority of individuals comprising the nation have not cooperated in drafting it.
Article XVII
Property belongs to both sexes whether united or separate; for each it is an inviolable and sacred right. No one can be deprived of it, since it is the true patrimony of nature, unless the legally determined public need obviously dictates it, and then only with a just and prior indemnity.
Women, wake up! The alarm bell of reason is making itself heard throughout the universe; recognize your rights. The powerful empire of nature is no longer beset by prejudices, fanaticism, superstition and lies. The torch of truth has dispelled all clouds of stupidity and usurpation. The enslaved man multiplied his forces but has had to resort to yours to break his chains. Once free he became unjust to his female companion. O women! women, when will you stop being blind? What advantages have you received from the revolution? A more pronounced scorn, a more marked contempt? During the centuries of corruption, your only power was over the weaknesses of men. Your empire is destroyed, what then is left to you? The conviction that men are unjust. The claiming of your patrimony based on the wise laws of nature. The good word of [Jesus Christ] the Lawgiver of the Marriage at Cana? Are you afraid that our French lawmakers, correctors of this morality, so long tied up with the politics which is no longer in style will say to you: "Women, what is there in common between you and us?" - Everything, you would have to reply. If they persisted in their weakness, in putting forth this inconsistency which is a contradiction of their principles, you should courageously oppose these male pretensions of superiority with the forces of reason; unite under the banner of philosophy, unfold all the energy of your character and you will soon see these proud men, your servile adorers, crawling at your feet, but proud to share with you the treasures of the Supreme being. Whatever the obstacles that oppose us may be, it is in your power to free us, you have only to will it.. Since it is now a question of national education, let us see if our wise lawmakers will think wisely about the education of women.
Women have done more harm than good. Constraint and dissimulation have been their lot. What force had robbed them of, ruse returned to them. Poison and the sword were both subject to them; they commanded in crime as in fortune. The French government, especially, depended throughout the centuries on the nocturnal administration of women; the cabinet kept no secret from their indiscretion; ambassadorial post, command, ministry, presidency, pontificate, college of cardinals; finally, anything which characterises the folly of men, profane and sacred, all have been subject to the cupidity and ambition of this sex, formerly contemptible and respected, and since the revolution, respectable and scorned.
In this sort of contradictory situation, what remarks could I not make! I have but a moment to make them, but this moment will fix the attention of the remotest posterity. Under the Old Regime, all was vicious, all was guilty; but could not the amelioration of conditions be perceived even in the substance of vices? A woman only had to be beautiful or amiable; when she possessed these two advantages, she saw a hundred fortunes at her feet. If she did not profit from them, she had a bizarre character or a rare philosophy which made her scorn wealth; then she was deemed to be like a crazy woman; the most indecent made herself respected with gold; commerce in women was a kind of industry in the first class [of society], which, henceforth, will have no more credit. If it still had it, the revolution would be lost, and under the new relationships we would always be corrupted; however, reason can always be deceived [into believing] that any other road to fortune is closed to the woman whom a man buys, like the slave on the African coasts. The difference is great; that is known. The slave is commanded by the master; but if the slave has lost all her charms, what will become of this unfortunate woman? The victim of scorn, even the doors of charity are closed to her; she is poor and old, they say; why did she not know how to make her fortune? Reason finds other examples that are even more touching. A young, inexperienced woman, seduced by a man whom she loves, will abandon her parents to follow him; the ingrate will leave her after a few years, and the older she has become with him, the more inhuman is his inconstancy; if she has children, he will likewise abandon them. If he is rich, he will consider himself excused from sharing his fortune with his noble victims. If some involvement binds him to his duties, he will deny them, trusting that the laws will support him. If he is married, any other obligation loses its rights. What laws remain to extirpate vice all the way to its root? The law of dividing wealth and public administration between men and women. It can easily be seen that one who is born into a rich family gains very much from such equal sharing. But the one born into a poor family with merit and virtue - what is her lot? Poverty and opprobrium. If she does not precisely excel in music or painting, she cannot be admitted to any public function when she has all the capacity for it. I do not to give only a sketch of things; I will go more deeply into this in the new edition of all my political writings, with notes, which I propose to give to the public in a few days.
I take up my text again on the subject of morals. Marriage is the tomb of trust and love. The married woman can with impunity give bastards to her husband, and also give them the wealth that does not belong to them. The woman who is unmarried has only one feeble right; ancient and inhuman laws refuse to her for her children the right to the name and the wealth of their father; no new laws have been made in this matter. If it is considered a paradox and an impossibility on my part to try to give my sex an honourable and just consistency, I leave it to men to attain glory for dealing with this matter; but while we wait, the way can be prepared through national education, the restoration of morals, and conjugal conventions.
Form for a Social Contract Between Man and Woman
We, ---------- and -----------, moved by our own will, unite ourselves for the duration of our lives, and for the duration of our mutual inclinations, under the following conditions: We intend and wish to make our wealth communal, meanwhile reserving to ourselves the right to divide it in favour of our children and of those to whom we might have a particular inclination, mutually recognising that our property belongs directly to our children, from whatever bed they come, and that all of them without distinction have the right to bear the name of the fathers and mothers who have acknowledged them, and we are charged to subscribe to the law which punishes the renunciation of one's own blood. We likewise obligate ourselves, in case of separation, to divide our wealth and to set aside in advance the portion the law indicates for our children, and in the event of a perfect union, the one who dies will divest himself of half his property in his child's favour, and if one dies childless, the survivor will inherit by right, unless the dying person has disposed of half the common property in favour of one whom he judged deserving.
That is approximately the formula for the marriage act I propose for execution. Upon reading this strange document, I see rising up against me the hypocrites, the prudes, the clergy, and the whole infernal sequence. But how it [my proposal] offers to the wise the moral means of achieving the perfection of a happy government! I am going to give in a few words the physical proof of it. The rich, childless Epicurean finds it very good to go to his poor neighbour to augment his family. When there is a law authorising a poor man's wife to have a rich one adopt their children, the bonds of society will be strengthened and morals will be purer. This law will perhaps save the community's wealth and hold back the disorder which drives so many victims to the almshouses of shame, to a low station, and into degenerate human principles where nature has groaned for so long. May the detractors of wise philosophy then cease to cry out against primitive morals, or may they lose their point in the source of their citations.
Moreover, I would like a law which would assist widows and young girls deceived by the false promises of a man to whom they were attached: I would like, I say, this law to force an inconstant man to hold to his obligations or at least [to pay] an indemnity equal to his wealth. Again, I would like this law to be rigorous against women, at least those who have the effrontery to have recourse to a law which they themselves had violated by their misconduct, if proof of that were given. At the same time, as I showed in Le Bonheur primitif de l'Homme, in 1788, that prostitutes should be placed in designated quarters. It is not prostitutes who contribute the most to the depravity of morals, it is the women of society. In regenerating the latter, the former are changed. This link of fraternal union will first bring disorder, but in consequence it will produce at the end a perfect harmony.
I offer a foolproof way to elevate the soul of women; it is to join them to all the activities of man; if man persists in finding this way impractical, let him share his fortune with woman, not at his caprice, but by the wisdom of laws. Prejudice falls, morals are purified, and nature regains all her rights. Add to this the marriage of priests and the strengthening of the king on his throne, and the French government cannot fail.
It would be very necessary to say a few words on the troubles which are said to be caused by the decree in favour of coloured men in our islands.[1] There is where nature shudders with horror; there is where reason and humanity have still not touched callous souls; there, especially, is where division and discord stir up their inhabitants. It is not difficult to divine the instigators of these incendiary fermentations; they are even in the midst of the National Assembly; they ignite the flame in Europe which must inflame America. Colonists make a claim to reign as despots over the men whose fathers and brothers they are; and, disowning the rights of nature, they trace the source of [their rule] to the scantiest tint of their blood. These inhuman colonists say: our blood flows in their veins, but we will shed it all if necessary to glut our greed or our blind ambition. It is in these places nearest to nature where the father scorns the son; deaf to the cries of blood, they stifle all its attraction; what can be hoped from the resistance opposed to them? To constrain [blood] violently is to render it terrible; to leave [blood] still enchained is to direct all calamities towards America. A divine hand seems to spread liberty abroad throughout the realms of man; only the law has the right to curb this liberty if it degenerates into license, but it must be equal for all; liberty must hold the National Assembly to its decree dictated by prudence and justice. May it act the same way for the state of France and render her as attentive to new abuses as she was to the ancient ones which each day become more dreadful. My opinion would be to reconcile the executive and legislative power, for it seems to me that the one is everything and the other is nothing - whence comes, unfortunately perhaps, the loss of the French Empire. I think that these two powers, like man and woman, should be united but equal in force and virtue to make a good household.
14 September 1791
[1] In the spring of 1791, the Revolutionary assembly held debates on a proposed constitution for the French colonies. The Assembly heard evidence from people of mixed race, and ultimately resolved that every mulatto whose parents were both free should have a vote. Later that year, there was an uprising in Haiti (Toussaint L'Ouverture joined the uprising after about a month). As a result of the slave uprising, the supply of sugar to France was cut off, leading to food riots in Paris in January 1792. The decree of 15.5.1791, which gave a vote to some people of colour, was rescinded by the Assembly. 

(I have edited, formatted and annotated the "Declaration" using the English translation found here and the French original, here.)

Arrested on 20 July 1793, Olympe de Gouges was tried and condemned to death on 2 November. She was guillotined on 3 November 1793.

For a wonderful website dedicated to Olympe de Gouges, see Clarissa Palmer's Olympe de Gouges: English Translations of the French Texts.

For a biography, I recommend Sophie Mousset's Women's Rights and the French Revolution: A Biography of Olympe de Gourges.

And for a focus on the totality of Gouges's work, see Carol Sherman's Reading Olympe de Gouges.