Advocating feminism nearly 200 years before it emerged as a mainstream movement in the West, Olympe de Gouge may appear to us way ahead of her times. Yet by no means was she so. Her idea of equality of men and women could be seen as very much a product of Enlightenment in so far as they conform to the norms dictated by reason. However, the age-old prejudice against women was so deeply entrenched in the minds of her contemporaries that even the progressive forces of Renaissance and Enlightenment could do nothing to dispel it.
The people of France sought revolution, but could not see that all social and political revolutions were bound to fail as long as a half of humanity is crippled, subdued and subjugated under the yoke of prejudice and discrimination. By abandoning the cause of women’s liberation, even while clamoring under the banner of liberty and equality, the French Revolution did not simply betray Olympe de Gouge and other women activists of the time, but it betrayed itself.
The chief aim of the French Revolution was to bring back the democratic form of polity, which was originally developed by the people of Athens and was fully functional around 5th century B. C. Based on the principle of equality of all people, democracy was a totally revolutionary concept at that point of human history. It shifted the basis of government from privilege to reason, and marked a decisive step ahead in human evolution. Yet the Athenian approach to life was benighted by two fundamental atrocities which corrupted and undermined its democratic system: extensive degradation of women and practice of slavery.
As difficult as it may be for us to believe, the supposedly enlightened Athenian society, which has been considered as the role model of Western civilization down the centuries, had many bizarre aspects to it. The most critical of such defects in the framework of Athenian society was the deliberate and systematic suppression of women. The French revolution, as imperfect and skewed as it was, heralded the beginning of the modern era of human history, in many ways. Yet, once again there were no significant efforts to ameliorate the condition of women and to treat them as equal to men.
A few women, among whom Olympe de Gouges features very prominent, raised their voices, championing the rights of women — but they were effectively suppressed. The French revolution failed in many ways, but its inability to recognize the equality of women with men was one of its most crucial failures. It was so difficult to demolish the barriers that restrained women in every aspect of their lives because these barriers were founded not just on psychological reasons but also on philosophical thinking. In Ancient Greece, Aristotle gave a systematic philosophical expression for prejudice against women.
He equated women with ‘matter’ devoid of ‘form’, that is to say, devoid of spirit. In the medieval times, Aristotle became the ultimate philosophical authority, and many of his notions were assimilated into the world-view of the people and the Church’s official doctrine. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “Now it is evident that in the opinion of philosophers, the active principle of generation is from the father, while the mother provides the matter” (Aquinas). However, Renaissance happened, and a new breed of thinking men started rebelling against the dogma of the Church and the ignorance of the Dark Ages.
Much of the new thinking was also directed against Aristotelian philosophical traditions. There was a great Scientific Revolution in the 16th and the 17th centuries, however there was sadly no social revolution to complement it, until the advent of the American and the French revolutions, which were not so great revolutions anyway. For instance, slavery continued to grow and thrive in the United States even in spite of the explicit declaration in the American Constitution that “All men are born equal.
Similarly the French revolution was based on the inspiring premise that “L’homme est ne libre” (Man is born free. ) However, this premise did not imply that woman is also born free, as one would expect, instead it neglected the question of women altogether. The French Revolution could have been used as an excellent platform to launch the long overdue women’s liberation, but no major ‘philosophe’ really bothered. Women’s liberation could have been used to push the French Revolution ahead with tremendous force and in the right direction, but no one realized the immense power that women represented.
There were about a handful of women, such as Charlotte Corday, Madame Roland, Madame Grafigny, and Olympe de Gouge who made great efforts to put women on equal footing to men. But these heroes of the French Revolution were all eventually martyred for their cause. Women activists were spurned, women’s liberation was seen as an abomination. This is the situation Olympe de Gouges bemoans in the sentence quoted at the beginning of this essay. In her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791), she challenged the notions of male-female inequality and customs of male domination.
In 1793, her revolutionary ideas led her to the guillotine. It may seem strange to us now that people who fought for the cause of freedom during the French Revolution, were motivated by base instincts to actively suppress any manifestation of women’s liberation. In her play Prince Philosophe, Olympe de Gouges has one of her characters say that “If one gave women the means to add to their charms both courage and learning that was profound and useful to the State, they could one day seize superiority for themselves, and make men, in their turn, weak and timid” (Proctor 1990).
If women were provided education, political and economic opportunity on an equal basis to men, it must have been feared that matriarchy would be established and the power of men undermined. The deluded men in the late eighteenth century France failed to grasp the simple truth that men and women can cooperate and forge a society where human freedom and happiness can thrive. The thinkers of Enlightenment seem to be only superficially enlightened, after all, harboring many of the vile prejudices of the dark Ages intact. Olympe de Gouge herself was a victim of such oppression directed at women.
She could have been a better spokesperson for the subjugated women of her time had she received better education and was in a position to write better. She aspired to become a successful author, but owing to her poor education, her writings often lacked polish and appeal, hence her voice could not reach many people. But the passion and fire in her drove her champion the rights of women till her last breath, in spite of all. Born into a petit bourgeois family in 1748, Olympe de Gouge was married in 1765, and was widowed soon thereafter.
She was left with a son with whom she moved to Paris. Aspiring to be a writer she authored essays and socially conscious plays. She also wrote on many gender-related issues arguing for more freedom for women. She talked about such things as a woman’s right to divorce and the right to have sexual relations outside marriage. She herself refused to marry again, rejected the marriage proposal of her lover, a high official in a military-related organization, and chose to remain as his mistress till the commencement of the revolution.
Her liaison with Jacques Bietrix de Rozieres provided her with the financial independence needed to engage in writing and other intellectual activities. She was very keen on writing plays, and the play that made her famous was an anti-slavery piece called L’Esclavage des Negres (Negro Slavery), which was originally published as Zamore et Mirza in 1785. Her other related writings such as Reflexions sur les hommes negres (1788) and le Marche des Noirs (1790), made her into a recognized anti-slavery activist.
In 1788, just before the Revolution, she published a few political brochures which became widely discussed. She spoke for the transition of the monarchy of France into a constitutional monarchy. She was a prominent member of the Girondins and La Societe d’Auteuil. Practically in all of her writings, she demanded that women be associated to political and social debates. She was thoroughly convinced that women were capable to take on all the tasks that were traditionally reserved for men. Olympe de Gouge passionately defended the rights of women.
Today, she is most known for her Declaration des Droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne, (“Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen”) which was written in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in the year 1791. She had been staunch supporter of human rights all her life, and involved herself in a variety issues that she believe involved injustice (Wikipedia 2006). During the French Revolution, the theories of equality of all human beings became popular and radical.
Especially through the writings of Montesquieu and Rousseau, the concept of equality had become the top priority in the political agenda. This new understanding of equality took concrete shape in the declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, composed in August 1789 and had become a part of French constitution in September 1791 (Gerhard 2001). But this document is a sham in so far as it blatantly excluded the issue of women. It was to address this terrible deficiency that Olympe de Gouge wrote her manifesto of the rights of women.
Her writings were however scorned and subjected to ridicule. Soon thereafter, she was murdered. Decades after the French Revolution, women still existed completely oppressed at every level of the French society. Everyone knows how the French Revolution came to be led by maniacal evil men a few years after its inception. But through active repression of women’s right, and not just passive neglect, the Revolution ultimately became a miserable travesty of itself, and a mockery of the very concept of human freedom.