Caught by the French Revolution – flourishing and destruction of feminism. The example of Olympe de Gouges (1748–1893) as a voice of political feminism

Tiina Veikat

The article aims to introduce a contemporary of the French Revolution, Olympe de Gouges, a brave voice for women’s political rights. De Gouges has been written into history above all as the author of the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Woman Citizen” that demanded equal civic rights and duties to men and women. In addition to different pamphlets and essays, de Gouges also wrote many plays and often faced difficulties in getting her socially critical plays staged.

In writing about de Gouges, one has to write about the impact of the revolution that shook French society in the second half of the 18th century that, at least for a few years, also meant greater rights to French women than under the ancien regime (briefly, for example, right to divorce, equal treatment of children in the distribution of inheritance, the abolition of the lettres de cachet, etc.). Under the banner of republicanism Parisian women sought the right to bear arms, which legally meant becoming a citizen with full rights. Women also gathered in different clubs that generated a sense of unity and that helped to propagate specific republican principles and values.

In revolutionary France women were active agents in oral and written declarations as well as in taking to arms in a way not seen before. This, without a doubt, changed the previous social image of women as fragile and gentle beings whose only place could be at home and presented men with the dilemma of how to return the active women to domesticity. The rise of Napoléon and his famous civil code ended women’s rights and aspirations achieved during the revolution. After the revolution, the punishment of women ideological leaders was society’s revenge to “male women” who dared to cross the conventional lines and question the Enlightenment celebration of equal rights that did not live up to the ideal of equality in reality.