A Woman to Know: Olympe de Gouges

If a woman has the right to be guillotined, she should also have the right to debate — Olympa de Gouges

If a woman has the right to be guillotined, she should also have the right to debate — Olympa de Gouges

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1790, a full century and a half before women would win the right to vote in France, Olympa de Gouges was writing on behalf of universal suffrage. Her journey there started when she was just a 16-year-old country girl named Marie Gouze, married off to a caterer, Louis Aubry. She loathed the institution of marriage and looked for a way out. As she later wrote,

I was married to a man I did not love and who was neither rich nor well-born. I was sacrificed for no reason that could make up for the repugnance I felt for this man.

When Lois died a year later, Marie saw her chance. She abandoned her household, took her young son and moved to Paris. There, she changed her name: Marie Gouze-Aubry no longer, Olympe de Gouges forever. She promised herself she would never marry again and became a vocal advocate for women’s right to divorce.

In Paris, Olympe immersed herself in the arts scene. She wrote political plays promoting abolitionism and argued children born out of wedlock (like herself, scholars later discovered) should be honored as “legitimate” members of families.

But Olympe was promoting her “very dangerous” ideas at a very dangerous time. In 1793, with the French Revolution well underway, her friends begged her to step off her soapbox. “I’m determined to be a success,” she told them. “And I'll do it in spite of my enemies.” She sided with the political moderates who wanted a constitutional monarchy. But she continued publishing essays and distributing her feminist pamphlets, the most famous of which is “A Declaration of the Rights of Women.”

In 1793, she was arrested by her political rivals, who aimed to use her as an example of what could happen to vocal women. Her captors searched the house for evidence that could potentially label her a political traitor; rather than hide such papers, Olympe led them directly to the storage cabinet where she kept her plays and writings.

After a mock trial, Olympe was executed by guillotine. As one historian later remembered,

She attempted to unmask the villains through the literary productions which she had printed and put up. They never forgave her, and she paid for her carelessness with her head.

Her son survived his mother’s trial and attempted to change her name in the records, back to her married name, Marie Aubry. But her loyal readers continued to distribute her work, keeping the name she had chosen for herself as the name she was forever remembered by.

Add to your library list: 

Read more:

Send your own recommendations for women to know! Reply to this newsletter with your lady and she could be featured in an upcoming edition.