Olympe de Gouges: a legend revisited

My quest started when I had to learn her name by heart. Our university department was relocated to a new building named after Olympe de Gouges, whose Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791) situates her among the pioneers of feminism.

When I discovered the namesake of our modern university facility, an array of intriguing connections sprang to my mind. I thought of suffragettes and women writers past and present:  the Pankhursts sisters, our Paris 7 Professor Emeritus Julia Kristeva, Sheryl Sandberg, the “contemporary feminist”.  I had to find out more about Olympe.

In Olivier Blanc’s monography, I found out that Olympe (1748-93) was more than a feminist; she was a humanist. A French Illuminist femme de lettres, she is remembered for her writing, her polemics (notably, the position she carried in the debate over abolishing the slave trade), and the social programmes that she pioneered. Of petit-bourgeois origins in a town near Toulouse, this illegitimate daughter of a man of letters conquered Parisian high society with her natural qualities: beauty, a flamboyant spirit, and intelligence. Her libertine way of life came with challenges. Beaumarchais once accused her of stealing her lovers’ writings and presenting them as her own, for example. This lifestyle also contributed to her falling out of public favor and eventually meeting execution during the Reign of Terror.

Through the end of the 19th century, accounts of Gouges were scant and misogynistic. Studies about her work expanded in the 20th century, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that feminist studies turned Olympe into a popular figure. Feminist critics refashioned her as a “marginalized female activist”, and this heroic, romantic perspective continues to prevail in today’s collective imagination.

Paris-Diderot’s decision to name their concrete and steel structure after this storied figure is only one example of Ms. de Gouge’s prominence in modern culture. Authors Catel and José-Louis Bocquet recently decided to fashion the Illuminist Olympe as a beautiful ‘femme fatale’ in their 400-page comic book. This rendering is reflective of a larger attempt at reforging Gouges’ identity in France. More and more conferences are organized on this topic and there is talk of giving Olympe a place in the Panthéon. The staying power of figures like Olympe de Gouges in today’s ever-evolving culture are evidence to the lasting power of ideals. In a time of upheaval and constant evolution, symbols of independence and human rights draw us together, even as we are rushing past them, late for class.

Le bâtiment d’Études Anglophones de notre université a changé de nom. Il porte désormais celui d’Olympe de Gouges (1748-93), femme de lettres du siècle des Lumières, reconnue pour ses œuvres en faveur de l’abolition de l’esclavage et sa Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne (1791). À tort, beaucoup d’études féministes des années 1990 l’ont romantisée à l’extrême. Si cela a contribué à asseoir son statut d’héroïne, il est cependant temps de se rendre compte qu’Olympe est aussi, surtout, une femme d’une grande modernité.

By Carmen Anghel

Photo Credit: Catel

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