Meet Olympe De Gouges

The Observer introduced her last week:

She fought to give women the right to divorce. She campaigned for civil partnerships and against slavery. She was a passionate feminist who died for her ideals – and all this in the late 18th century. Now one of France’s greatest honours could be bestowed on Olympe de Gouges, a woman considered by many to be one of the world’s first feminist campaigners.

De Gouges is one of a handful of women being considered for membership of the Panthéon, France’s secular necropolis. Kickstarting a national campaign, the feminist movement Osez le féminisme (Dare to be a feminist) has just launched an e-petition to put pressure on President François Hollande to admit more women to the Panthéon.

Tell us more about the Panthéon, please, Observer.

Designed in the late 1740s on Louis XV’s request, Paris’s Panthéon, originally designed as a church, was completed a few months after the revolution started. The consecration never took place. Instead, revolutionaries decided to dedicate the impressive building perched on top of the Latin Quarter’s hill, just south of the Sorbonne, to the great men and women who have contributed to France’s grandeur.

Very good. Too bad they fell down on the “and women” part.

Born Marie Gouze in 1748, the feminist reinvented herself as Olympe de Gouges in her 20s when she arrived in pre-revolutionary Paris. Opposed to religious marriage, which she deemed “love and trust’s grave”, she preferred companionship.

She chose the theatre, which was at the forefront of avant-garde politics, to express her radical ideas. Performed by her own theatre company, her play The Slavery of the Blacks made her famous. In it she denounced the economics behind slavery and supported its abolition.

She also edited a newsletter, Lettre au Peuple (Letter to the People), in which she developed a series of social reforms. She wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Women, in which she stated: “A woman has the right to be guillotined; she should also have the right to debate.” She campaigned for the right for women to divorce and obtained it. She campaigned in favour of a system of civil partnerships that would replace religious marriage.

All very nice, but did she have a JOB? She should have had a JOB. She should have done real activism and real things instead of all that scribbling, plus she should have had a JOB.

However, her audacity proved too much for some – and Robespierre in particular, whom she had publicly accused of tyranny. She was arrested and sentenced to death in 1793. As she walked up to the guillotine, she declared: “Children of the fatherland, you will avenge my death.”

Oh yes? Well doesn’t Robespierre sound like

no, I won’t say it.


  1. Lyanna says

    She’s a fascinating and wonderful figure, though I must be pedantic and note that the account of her execution in that article is misleading (makes it sound like she was executed for promoting feminism or criticizing Robespierre, when she was in fact executed for allegedly promoting royalism at a time when Paris was rightfully terrified of foreign invasions that would restore absolute monarchy). But she absolutely deserves a place in the Panthéon.

  2. thephilosophicalprimate says

    “Promoting royalism” (and variations thereupon) was the charge Robespierre leveled against everyone who pissed him off, wasn’t it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *