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April 13, 2021

A Woman on the Rostrum: The Revolutionary Tale of Olympe de Gouges

The sounds of people shouting and jeering shook her from her haze as she realized what the day would bring. The sound of footsteps echoed down the hall, keys jingled as they were removed from a belt, and the sound of the lock clicking open finalized the peaceful moments of freedom before she was forced to stand and begin her walk to the center of town. The walk was overshadowed by the taunts of the common people and the force with which she was pushed to walk faster. Eventually, she reached the center of Paris where her fate stared back at her impassively. Standing straight ahead and looming taller than her, the simple yet intimidating form of the guillotine signified the end of Marie-Olympe de Gouges.

Marie Gouzes, more commonly known as Marie-Olympe de Gouges, was born in Montauban, France on December 31, 1748. She was the daughter of Anne Olympe Moisset and an unknown man. Many rumors surrounded who the mystery father could be: was it Pierre Gouzes, the husband of Anne Moisset, or Marquis Lefranc de Pompignan, a man of high social rank with whom Anne had a brief affair? Regardless of her paternity, Olympe resided with Pierre Gouzes until his death in 1750. She was known for her rebellious nature, which would continue well into her adulthood. In 1765, Olympe married Louis Aubrey, a French officer who was quite a few years older than she. Two years into their marriage, she bore a son and, a year later, Aubrey died. Staying true to her rebellious nature, Olympe de Gouges refused to be positioned as a widowed mother or remembered as the “Widowed Aubrey”; additionally, she vowed to never remarry. Around 1770, she abandoned her son and relocated to Paris in the hopes of gaining fame as a writer. There, she assigned herself the name Olympe de Gouges as a combination of her mother’s and father’s names.1

To establish herself, Olympe allegedly started or perpetuated rumors of her illegitimacy as the daughter of Marquis Lefranc de Pompignan, who was himself an established author and social elite. Even with the lack of proof, these rumors gained attention and status among the social elite in Paris, allowing Olympe to jump-start her writing career. While she climbed higher in Parisian social circles, Olympe began writing and publishing plays, novels, and pamphlets that focused on political and social issues that she deemed important. However, her successful climb in social status did not extend to her writing. As a playwright, her writing was described as slow-moving and loquacious, presumably as a result of her astoundingly simple education, which is only evidenced by her ability to sign her marriage certificate. Her written works, especially her plays, never gained public attention until 1785, when her first comedy, Le Mariage inattendu de Cherubin, was performed in the Theatre Français.2 Following quickly, Olympe wrote L’Homme Genereux, which never gained enough support to be produced for the stage, and L’Esclavage des Noirs, which was initially accepted for the stage until the reveal of Olympe’s gender, which led to the subsequent shelving of the playwright.3 Each of her writings focused on a social issue from the perspective of both extremes in a way she hoped would promote change in a method that would not destroy social stability. Le Mariage inattendu de Cherubin was written as a sequel to the 1784 play by Pierre Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro, and her play focused on how a privileged husband’s crime affected the family and the victim. L’Homme Genereux showcased the political powerlessness of women and the injustice of imprisonment for debt, while L’Esclavage des Noirs explored the inhumanity of slavery from the first-person perspective of a slave.4 As the political turmoil in France reached a boiling point, Olympe’s focus shifted to human rights, especially the rights of women and children, and she attempted to maintain a moderate financial stance in the hopes of salvaging political stability.

A Representation of the Tennis Court Oath by Jacques-Louis David | Courtesy of Britannica

On May 5, 1789, the Estates-General was called to Versailles to discuss grievances and possible solutions for the financial unrest in France.5 The Estates-General was an assembly of 1,200 representatives from the clergy (300), the aristocracy (300), and the commoners or Third Estate (600) elected to listed grievances and requests, also called cahiers de doléances, which would be presented before the king. When discord surrounding the voting of the estates arose, the Third Estate absconded from the group, renamed themselves the National Assembly, and threatened to proceed without the other estates. The National Assembly’s disruption resulted in the famous Tennis Court Oath, which became an agreement between all three estates, now officially titled the National Constituent Assembly, that they would not leave Versailles until they had created a new constitution for France.6

Hoping to prevent an outbreak of violence, Olympe de Gouges published a letter to the people urging a reconciliation with the king. She proposed that the people pay a voluntary tax that would work to stabilize the financial crisis. Olympe appealed to the public on two levels: the first level proposed paying the voluntary tax placed the common people on an equal placement with the aristocrats, while the second level stated that paying the tax would label the people as the king’s children. As the king’s children, the public would be responsible for preserving the emotional integrity of the state and monarchy which would, in turn, earn the king’s gratitude and recognition once the financial crisis was averted. Simultaneously, Olympe de Gouges appealed to the king and queen with the request that a luxury tax be placed on the aristocracy to alleviate the financial burden placed upon the Third Estate.7 Throughout her advocation for social reforms and taxes, Olympe de Gouges maintained her stance as a royalist by advocating the monarchial government be transformed with little violence into a constitutional monarchy that would focus on the voice of the people rather than the desires of the aristocracy. In 1788, Olympe produced a small, written piece entitled Droits d’une femme, which expressed her revolutionary beliefs, including a list of grievances against the aristocracy, but also maintained her allegiance to the monarchy in a regent government where the king held constitutional power instead of absolute power. This written work was different than her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen, but offered the basic outline that she would later use to write her declaration. Her allegiance to the monarchy remained through the storming of the Bastille, which took place on July 14, 1789. But her support of the monarchy wavered in June of 1791 when King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette, and their family attempted to escape Paris to avoid the chaos and violence directed towards them. Because of their attempted escape, Olympe de Gouges’ rhetoric and political works became more pointed and supportive of the revolutionaries in the hopes of equality for men and women.

Declaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne, written by Olympe de Gouges |
Courtesy of Wikipedia

As she worked on her political works, Olympe de Gouges often met and discussed social reforms with aristocratic women in social clubs that focused on supporting women’s rights within the revolution. The social clubs proposed reforms that would allow complete legal equality for men and women, create more job opportunities for women in the public sphere, better education for young girls, and a national theater dedicated only to plays written by women.8 One social club that Olympe was a part of was the Society of Republican and Revolutionary Women, whose members encouraged Olympe to write a document that would essentially serve as a declaration of rights for women. This declaration became Olympe de Gouges’ most famous work, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen, or Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne, which was published around September of 1791 as a response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was published in 1789 as the official declaration of the French Revolution. Olympe’s declaration expanded on the rights decreed by the 1789 declaration but focused exclusively on the inclusion and equality of women into the public sphere of French society. In order to prevent any misunderstanding, Olympe de Gouges utilized the same language and grammar as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen while simply changing “man” to “woman.” Additionally, Olympe dedicated the work to Marie Antoinette in the hope that the queen would support the fight for women’s rights.

The Declaration of the rights of man and the citizen, written by Abbe Sieyes | Courtesy of Wikipedia

However, Olympe de Gouges gained many enemies because of her outspoken nature and her belief that women should automatically receive the same new-found rights as gained by the male citizens. Another reason enemies targeted Olympe de Gouges was due to her continued support of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, even with their trial and execution on charges of treason. Her support and defense of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette placed her at odds with Maximilien Robespierre, the leader of the revolutionaries who later became known as the Committee of Public Safety. She harshly criticized Robespierre and advocated for women’s rights in her pamphlet Pronostic de Monsieur Robespierre pour an animal amphibie.9

Her written works and belief that she had the right to speak out on behalf of the citizens of France and argue for the rights of women violated the traditional social boundaries that even the revolutionaries upheld. Subsequently, on July 25, 1793, Olympe de Gouges was charged with sedition for having written works against the wants and needs of the nation of France and directly opposed those in power. She was immediately imprisoned, and a public prosecutor began reviewing her writings before her interrogation began on August 6, 1793. The public prosecutor determined Olympe had written works that were an attack on the sovereignty of the people, that she had questioned and provoked civil war, and sought to arm citizens against each other. The trial was brief and one-sided because the prosecutor refused to provide a defense attorney for Olympe de Gouges, stating that she claimed to be more than capable of defending herself as she had written herself to be her own defense in her writings.10 Olympe de Gouges was found guilty, condemned to death, and executed by guillotine on November 3, 1793.

  1. Holly Grout, “Exceptional Women: Rights, Liberty, and Deviance in the French Revolution,” Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women’s Studies Resources 30, no. 3 (June 22, 2009): 6.
  2. Marie Maclean, “Chapter 5: Opposition and Revolution: Olympe de Gouges and the Rights of the Dispossessed,” in Name of the Mother (Taylor & Francis Ltd / Books, 1994), 89-90.
  3. Marie Maclean, “Chapter 5: Opposition and Revolution: Olympe de Gouges and the Rights of the Dispossessed,” in Name of the Mother (Taylor & Francis Ltd / Books, 1994), 91.
  4. “Translating Slavery, Volume 1 : Gender and Race in French Abolitionist Writing, 1780-1830,” accessed February 26, 2021.
  5. “Estates-General,” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, January 1, 2018, 1.
  6. “Estates-General,” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, January 1, 2018, 1.
  7. “1789-1791: The Revolution | Archives & Special Collections,” accessed March 10, 2021.
  8. Elizabeth Racz, “The Women’s Rights Movement in the French Revolution,” Science & Society 16, no. 2 (1952): 159.
  9. Marie Josephine Diamond, “The Revolutionary Rhetoric of Olympe de Gouges,” Feminist Issues 14, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 10.
  10. Holly Grout, “Exceptional Women: Rights, Liberty, and Deviance in the French Revolution,” Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women’s Studies Resources 30, no. 3 (June 22, 2009): 6.

Tags from the story

Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen

French Revolution

Olympe de Gouges

Madeline Emke

My name is Madeline Emke, and I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri. I am a History major graduating in 2024. I hope to continue on to law school where I would help equally protect the rights of humanity. In my spare time, I enjoy reading, playing the piano, and singing.

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Recent Comments

Chris Emke, LFF

Bien fait! It feels like Olympe was a brave woman of strong conviction. Thank you for sharing her story.



3:40 pm

Sarah Heinsz

Very well written and easy to picture.



3:40 pm

Amanda Emke

The opening paragraph really drew me in … the descriptors created a scene that brought me to that moment with Olympe. Then to take a step back and learn what led her to that moment was a compelling way to tell her story. And providing a story that depicts someone with such conviction to her work for equity is a story so very important in today’s current cultural climate. Thanks for sharing!



3:40 pm

Mary Heinsz

Your writing style draws the reader in, and then the history lesson unfolds. I admit to never having heard of Olympe de Gouges, yet her story is fascinating, and sad at the same time. One has to wonder what she would think if she saw the world in 2021, some two and a quarter centuries after her execution, and women still are fighting for equality, especially in regard to the work force and financial compensation.



3:40 pm

Aaron Sandoval

I really enjoyed this article, I don’t think I have ever heard of Olympe de Gouges, but the story the author told made her seem like a strong woman. The author did a great job of formatting this article, and it made the article easy to follow and understand. The story of Olympe is extremely powerful, her stance that women should have equal rights to that of a man was very compelling, and unfortunately, she was a victim of the time period, and her words resulted in her unfortunate execution.



3:40 pm

Karla Cardenas

This was such an amazing story to read! Her story is amazing and really depicts women in such an amazing and empowering way, especially with what she went through. You go into amazing detail with your article and it was really an amazing read! Your writing is great and so in-depth!



3:40 pm

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