November 3, 2007

November 3 | Olympe de Gouge

December 31, 1745 - November 3, 1793: Age 47

In French law during the 17th century women had no legal right to declare the paternity of their children. So Olympe de Gouge, in a strange way, had the freedom to define herself: she was denied by her natural father, a marquis, and her washerwoman mother had no legal say in the matter.

We may not find it surprising that Olympe grew up to be a passionate defender of the rights of the oppressed, but in fact it occurred to very few people that anybody who wasn't a white male should have any rights at all. At the time that the whole country, indeed the whole of Europe and the New World, was in a intellectual ferment over the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the rights of women, slaves, and children were considered ridiculous (when considered at all).

During the events leading up to the French Revolution and the Revolution itself, Olympe de Gouge supported herself by finding male patrons willing to protect her while she wrote plays and essays proposing and defending universal human rights. She wrote a play attacking slavery in 1774 (L'Esclavage des Nègres) but it went unpublished until 1789, the year of the Revolution, and even then she could not get it staged because, among other obstacles, she couldn't find actors willing to play negro parts.

She became involved and tried to speak out about any injustice: "A woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker's platform." She opposed the execution of Louis XIV. The year that Déclaration des droits du Homme et du Citoyen was published, she published Déclaration des droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne. She was combative, outspoken, difficult, and hated. Even a century after her death, the historian Jules Michelet commented, "She allowed herself to act and write about more than one affair that her weak head did not understand."

Eventually she paid for her views with her "weak head". In 1793 she was arrested for publishing an essay that demanded a plebiscite on a choice of three potential forms of government: an indivisible Republic, a federalist government, or a constitutional monarchy. On November 3 her "right to mount the scaffold" trumped her right to mount the speaker's platform, and she was guillotined.

Source: Wikipedia

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