Although militant feminism and female agitation were major features of the French Revolution, the woman whose name is most closely associated with this world-shattering event remains the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. But that distinction, by revolutionary rights, belongs in truth to Olympe de Gouges. Two years before she met her grizzly fate with Madame Guillotine aged 38, Olympe wrote: “A woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must also have the right to mount the rostrum.” For a slew of similarly bold and visionary statements – radical even within that momentous milieu – Olympe has earned the distinction of “first modern feminist” among historians such as Benoîte Groult. There is strong support for this assertion; in 1791, one year before Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Olympe published the very first charter for women’s rights – which remains one of the most powerful and concise expressions of feminism. But Olympe did not limit her vision solely to women’s struggles: in a flurry of political pamphlets, journal articles, and broadsides published between 1789 and 1792, she championed the causes of social justice and civil rights on behalf of all the disenfranchised and underprivileged: children, the poor, the unemployed and, most controversially, slaves. (A proto-abolitionist, Olympe’s play – Slavery of Negroes – caused such an uproar when it was first performed in 1788 that the mayor of Paris condemned it as an incendiary act, fearing it would cause revolt in the French colonies.) Despite a multitude of groundbreaking contributions as playwright, agitator, reformer and author, Olympe’s name has until recent years been conspicuously, disturbingly, absent from historical records. There can be only one reason: she was a woman. Let us therefore rectify such criminal neglect and recall her finest moment, namely: Olympe de Gouge’s authorship of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen.
“Woman, wake up; the tocsin of reason is being heard throughout the whole universe; discover your rights. The powerful empire of nature is no longer surrounded by prejudice, fanaticism, superstition, and lies. The flame of truth has dispersed all the clouds of folly and usurpation. Enslaved man has multiplied his strength and needs recourse to yours to break his chains. Having become free, he has become unjust to his companion. Oh, women, women! When will you cease to be blind? What advantage have you received from the Revolution?”
Thus wrote an outraged Olympe de Gouges in the summer of 1791 when the exclusion of women from active citizenship in the French Constitution inspired her greatest political pamphlet. In an act of rhetorical genius, de Gouges added or substituted “woman” for “man” in each article of Thomas Paine’s famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen – which was to French revolutionaries what the Declaration of Independence had been to Americans two decades prior. Unimaginably radical at the time, Olympe’s Declaration remains radical even today – insistent, as she was, on exact equality, including combat roles in the military. And it was with characteristic directness that she demanded an explanation for the hypocritical omission of women from the Constitution:
“Man, are you capable of being just? It is a woman who asks you this question. Who has given you the authority to oppress my sex?”
In speaking out on behalf of the rights of women, Olympe violated traditional social boundaries that even revolutionaries held dear. But when she dared to accuse Maximilien Robespierre of despotism, her impudence could no longer be tolerated and she was arrested for sedition. Olympe was accused before the Paris Tribunal on November 2nd and condemned to die the following day.
As she ascended the scaffold, she spoke her last words to the assembled crowd: “Children of the Fatherland, you will avenge my death!”
Eight months later, Robespierre was guillotined without trial.