Although she was raised by a butcher and a mother who was the daughter of a cloth merchant, there was always speculation that Olympe was the illegitimate daughter of Jean-Jacques Lefranc (the Marquis de Pompignan) (1: No Paternal Safety Net). He, however, rejected her claim and many believe this was why she worked so hard on behalf of illegitimate children (2: An Early Sense of Direction).
Little is known of her childhood, but when she was 17 she “was married to” Louis Aubry, a caterer whom she didn’t really love, and they had a son, Pierre. When he died less than two years afterward (in 1770), she and her son moved to Paris, and she changed her name from Marie Gouze to Olympe de Gouges.
Three years later, she had a long relationship with a wealthy man (Jacques Bietrix de Rozieres), who was one of several men who supported—but never married—her (15: Forget About Prince Charming). Her putative biological father died in 1784, and that's when she began to write articles, essays and socially-conscious plays. During this time she began to move among the aristocracy and supposedly worked to lose her provincial accent. One of her notable works was “Zamore and Mirza,” which was an anti-slavery play that was so controversial it was renamed three times, and only performed on rare occasions (11: Risk Addiction).
She was a passionate advocate of human rights (7: Magnificent Obsession), and was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution. But when “egalite” (equal rights) was not extended to women she was deeply disappointed. Even though the government would not listen to her, in 1791 she became a member of The Society of the Friends of Truth, which fought for equal political and legal rights for women. This is where de Gouges’ most famous controversial statement (“A woman has the right to mount the scaffold, so she must possess equally the right to mount the speaker’s platform”) originated (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest).
Later that year she wrote and published “Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen,” which was a 17-point manifesto that addressed her idea of gender equality. For example, the second “right” is “The purpose of all political associations is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of woman and man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and especially resistance to oppression.” This gender-inclusive call to action was an alarming stand for a woman of that era, especially one from the provinces (13: More Than Meets the Eye).
Her political activity seemed to anger both sides of French politics. Because she opposed Capital Punishment, she was against the execution of Louis XVI, but since the Republicans opposed any political participation by women they (like the Royalists) also loathed de Gouges. One critic even wrote that “She allowed herself to act and write about more than one affair that her weak head did not understand.”
By 1793, she was arrested, spent three months in jail, and without the help of an attorney she tried to represent herself (12: Hard Times). She was sentenced to death on November 2nd 1793, and guillotined on the next day. More recently, in March 2004, the junction of Rues Beranger, Charlot, Turenne and Franche-Comte in Paris’ Third Arrondissement was proclaimed "Place Olympe de Gouges" (8: Turning No Into Yes).
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