May 7, 1748—November 3, 1793
Olympe de Gouges was born Marie de Gouze on May 7, 1748 to Anne Olympe Gouze and Pierre Gouze, a butcher. However, it was widely suspected—and admitted to by de Gouges—that Marie’s real father was Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Caix, Anne Olympe’s godfather, later to become Marquis of Pompignan. Marie was raised in Montauban, in the Languedoc region of southern France and grew up speaking Occitan, a regional dialect.
At age 17, she was married to Louis Aubry, a restauranteur in the employ of Alexis de Gourges. Because Marie was both a member of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy by birth, she was shocked and dismayed to find herself married to a man of inferior social status. She bore a son a year later and shortly thereafter her husband died as a result of the river Tarn flooding. Rather than keeping her husband’s name, Marie created a new identity for herself: Olympe de Gouges. A widow of less than a year, she met Jacques Biétrix de Rozières, a wealthy businessman, and followed him to Paris, never to return to the town of her birth.
Once in Paris, Gouges lived the life of a coquette: attending the theater, concerts, and balls. Biétrix left her a generous pension and also paid her debts. It was rumored that de Gouges was a courtesan and may have lived as a kept woman whose household was supported by more than one man. Nevertheless she mixed with aristocracy and the wealthy bourgeoisie at the Duke of Orléan’s Palais Royal and enjoyed visiting museums and art salons, taking a keen interest in science and literature.
In 1784, Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan died and Olympe wrote an epistolary novel, Memoirs of Madame de Valmont, inspired by Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which had been published two years before. Olympe claimed only to have simply reproduced the letters she had received from her father, only changing the names.
Having begun her writing career with her fictionalized memoirs, she turned to the theatre. Zamore et Mirza was a play about the slave trade and portrayed a slave in love with a female slave. Containing shipwrecks, daughters looking for lost fathers, murder, and couples in love, Gouges found a champion in Madame de Montesson, who intervened with the Théâtre Comèdie-Français; as a result Olympe was granted a reading with the theatre, something notoriously difficult, especially for a woman. The reading was a success and the play was added to the theatre’s repertoire. However, despite Olympe’s demand that it be performed immediately, there were other plays in the queue before hers. Eventually, relations between her and the theatre became so acrimonious that they dropped the play from their repertoire. However, Olympe threatened to bring legal action against the troop and in 1789 rehearsals for the play finally began. She had revised the play and changed its title to L’Esclavage des Noirs (Negro Slavery). The premiere was set for December 28 and was met with protests, so much so that it closed after only three performances. The following year, when the slaves of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) revolted, the slave lobby blamed the play; and when the play was staged again in 1792, a riot broke out in Paris.
In the meanwhile, on May 5 the Estates General met and the Third Estate obtained the vote by individual head against the aristocracy’s wishes. Tensions rose between the nobility and the bourgeoisie. In this environment, Olympe de Gouges began writing politically moderate pamphlets, articles, declarations and bills expressing her opinions on the politics of the day and advocating for the freedom of slaves and the equality of women.
Although she was initially excited by the Revolution and its implications for the rights of women, she became disillusioned as equality was not extended to women and France continued to profit from slavery. In 1791, she wrote Déclaration des Droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne (the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen), her most famous work. It was very pointedly patterned after the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (she substituted woman for man in each instance), and addressed to the Queen.
When the king was put on trial, Gouges offered to defend him, arguing that he should be exiled, not executed. Afterwards, becoming more and more alarmed by Robespierre and his faction, she wrote open letters criticizing them. Finally, in 1793 she published her poster Les Trois Urnes, ou le Salut de la Patrie, par un Voyageur Aérien (“The Three Urns, or the Salvation of the Fatherland, by an Aerial Traveller”). The piece demanded a direct vote by all citizens for a choice among three potential forms of government: the first, a unitary republic, the second, a federalist government, or the third, a constitutional monarchy, which Gouges supported. She was arrested and held by the Revolutionary Tribunal.
While searching her home for evidence, police commissioners found an unfinished play titled La France Sauvée ou le Tyran Détroné (“France Preserved, or The Tyrant Dethroned”). In the first act Marie-Antoinette is planning defense strategies to retain the crumbling monarchy and is confronted by revolutionary forces, including Gouges herself. The first act ends with Gouges reproving the queen for having seditious intentions and lecturing her about how she should lead her people. Both Gouges and her prosecutor used this play [La France Sauvée] as evidence in her trial. The prosecutor claimed that Gouges’ depictions of the queen threatened to stir up sympathy and support for the Royalists, whereas Gouges stated that the play showed that she had always been a supporter of the Revolution. Even from prison, she managed to have a poster put up, Olympe de Gouges au Tribunal Révolutionnaire (Olympe de Gouges at the Revolutionary Court), which complained of the injustice of her imprisonment and reminded citizens of her commitment to the Revolution.
Despite her efforts, she was found guilty of sedition and attempting to restore the monarchy and was sent to the guillotine on November 3, 1793. She was said to have cried out on the scaffold, “Children of the Homeland, you shall avenge my death!” Her body, like that of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, was interred in the Madeleine Cemetery.
Bibliography of Sources:
Hesse, C. “Marie-Olympe De Gouges.” Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire, edited by John Merriman and Jay Winter, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006. Accessed 18 Apr. 2019. Biography in Context, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/K3446900357/BIC?u=wash_main&sid=BIC&xid=840a1b6e.
“Marie-Olympe De Gouges.” Historic World Leaders, edited by Anne Commire, Gale, 1994. Accessed 18 Apr. 2019. Biography In Context, https://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/K1616000246/BIC?u=wash_main&sid=BIC&xid=134fd246.
“Olympe de Gouges.” Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed on April 18, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympe_de_Gouges.
Mousset, Sophie. Women’s Rights and the French Revolution: A Biography of Olympe de Gouges. Translated by Joy Poirel. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2007.
Alexander Kucharsky, Portrait of Olympes de Gouges (1748–1793). c. 1787, pastel, dimensions unknown. Available from: Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia. accessed April 18, 2019. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Olympe_de_Gouges.png.