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Olympe de Gouges
Would you stand up for your rights, even if it meant losing your head?
It was 3 November 1793. The Reign of Terror was at its peak, claiming 36 souls a day in Paris. The French Revolution, which had begun as a movement of liberty, fraternity, and equality for all, had descended into horror. Power-hungry extremists, known as the Jacobins, had seized authority and control. Those who stood with the monarchy were either dead or had fled. Those who dared to criticize the new regime were arrested and thrown in the Conciergerie prison – the antechamber to the guillotine. Even King Louis XVI, who'd agreed to trade his crown for a constitution in August 1789, would be guillotined on 21 January 1793.
Olympe de Gouges was about to follow him to the guillotine scaffold. Why? Because she believed women should have rights and a political voice equal to men.
Olympe de Gouges was possibly the first feminist in modern European history. She was also a passionate revolutionary. Believing in the promise of liberté, she did something few women did in the 1770s: She had left an unhappy marriage and moved to Paris to make her mark as a writer.
For this was the Age of Enlightenment, and the French capital its epicenter. Science, reason, and the arts held sway in literary and discussion circles that dotted the wealthiest quarters of the city. Called Salons and hosted by outspoken, intelligent women, they attracted the greatest thinkers of the day, including authors and philosophers, or philosophes. Folks like Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau took on celebrity status at the Salons. Olympe and other female authors of the day joined their wide-ranging confabs on art, philosophy, and politics.
But there appeared a flaw in their logic surrounding the notion of egalité. The most famous philosophes were male, and although they agitated loudly for equality, they meant as it applied to them. Many were hostile to the idea of women’s rights. They argued that women lacked the power of reason and should be defined only as mothers and wives. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, followers of the philosophes published The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which argued for male rights to liberty, equality, and brotherhood, but excluded any mention of women and men of color.
In protest, Olympe published The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. "Woman are born free and remain equal to man in rights,” she declared in the document, arguing that women possess the same powers of reason and should therefore be granted the same natural rights as men. The Rights of Woman infuriated male revolutionaries. Many believed that Olympe was conspiring to start a female insurrection.
In March 1793, the Jacobins purged all women from political clubs in Paris, proving just how deeply anti-feminist they were. They arrested Olympe, who refused to hide or remain silent, and charged her with sedition, which means conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state.
In a prophetic quote, Olympe insisted in the The Rights of Woman that if women could “mount the scaffold” and be punished by execution alongside men, they had “the right to mount the speaker’s rostrum” and participate in politics as well. On 3 November 1793, Olympe lived out her principles. She mounted the scaffold at the Place de la Révolution, steel-eyed and defiant to meet her end at the guillotine blade. She died for her belief in women’s equality with men.
Olympe’s death failed to suppress the memory of the Rights of Woman, which had already inspired Mary Wollstonecraft to publish a similar document in Britain. Indeed, Olympe’s work jumped across the Atlantic, where it became a model for the Seneca Falls Declaration of 1848 and the fight for women’s suffrage. That's why she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.
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