Olympe de Gouges
Olympe de Gouges believed passionately in the equality of women and men. Nothing extraordinary today — but she was born in the 1700s. She died for her beliefs, but left a legacy that would inspire women around the world...
Possibly modern Europe's first #feminist, Olympe did something few women did in her era: She left an unhappy marriage and moved to Paris to work as a writer.
It was the Age of Enlightenment. Science, reason, and the arts held sway in discussion circles that dotted the wealthiest quarters of Paris. Called Salons, they were hosted by outspoken, intelligent women. But their guests — the most famous thinkers of the day — were men. And while they called for equality, they had a blind spot: They argued that women lacked the power of reason and should be defined as mothers and wives.
When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, followers of the philosophers published The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. It argued for male rights to liberty, equality, and brotherhood. It excluded any mention of women.
In protest, Olympe published The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, in which she declared, "Woman is born free and remains equal to man in rights.”
By 1793, the French Revolution had descended into terror. Power-hungry extremists seized authority. They arrested and killed anyone who dared to criticize the new regime. They guillotined King Louis XVI on 21 January. Olympe was soon to follow.
Her Rights of Woman infuriated them. Many believed that Olympe was conspiring to start a female insurrection. In March, she was arrested. But she refused to be silenced, insisting that if women can “mount the scaffold” to be executed alongside men, they had “the right to mount the speaker’s rostrum” and participate in politics.
On 3 Nov 1793, Olympe died by her principles. But her death failed to suppress the memory of her Declaration. Inspired, Mary Wollstonecraft published a similar document in Britain. Across the Atlantic, the Rights of Women became a model for the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration that kicked off the fight for women’s suffrage in the USA.