“Woman, wake up; the tocsin of reason is being heard throughout the whole universe; discover your rights. The powerful empire of nature is no longer surrounded by prejudice, fanaticism, superstition, and lies. The flame of truth has dispersed all the clouds of folly and usurpation. Enslaved man has multiplied his strength and needs recourse to yours to break his chains. Having become free, he has become unjust to his companion. Oh, women, women! When will you cease to be blind?”
— an excerpt from Olypme de Gouges’s Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen
The struggle for human rights has been a long and arduous conflict that started, perhaps, when humans gained their original notions of society and themselves. As a struggle, this conflict continues to this day. It is true that we as a species of carbon-based lifeforms, who live on a rock hurtling through space at unimaginable speeds, have made great strides in this struggle for equality and equity, yet it is also true that we have a ways to go. Few documents are scattered throughout history and are recognized today as pivotal, monumental steps that were taken towards codifying some semblance of human rights into law. These documents include the Magna Carta, the United States constitution and bill of rights, and the famous French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen. These documents all have one thing in common: they serve as a warning to those who would think to tread upon the rights of those who wrote them. It’s no surprise that these documents all were the culmination of bloody conflict, or a precursor to them, as the struggle for human rights, ironically, has always been against other humans. They all, however, are a bit short sighted. Each of these documents shield a certain class of citizen from abuse and manipulation by another, usually more wealthy class. These documents shift the status quo, certainly, but hindsight is 20/20, and in 2022 an academic scholar can quickly come to the conclusion that these different interpretations of human rights, while certainly expanding the freedoms of those it encompases, still push towards a maintenance of a certain status quo. The most radical and all-encompassing of these documents is, of course, the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen, yet it leaves out a very large portion of the population: Women.
Olympe de Gouges took issue with this, and using her skills acquired during a life of as a political playwright, wrote the famed Declaration on the Rights of Women and of the [Female] Citizen. Commonly referred to as “the first modern femenist,” de Gouges used her platform and ability to bring a spotlight to certain social issues, as she was outspoken against issues such as slavery, and it is thanks to her spirit of protest that my mom and sister are able to hold jobs, vote, and be afforded the same legal protections as my brother, father, and I. While I am not a woman myself, I care deeply about the struggle of marginalized groups who yearn to have themselves and their place in the world respected. I think that is where I relate to Olympe de Gouges the most; I simply cannot stand when others seek to belittle, or even systematically oppress, individuals or groups who simply want to exist. To me, that shows a failure of humanity. We should be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and realize that there are certain things about people’s lives that we can never hope to understand because their experiences are unique to them. If I was de Gouges, and I saw an abundance of new revolutionary ideas springing forth into the spotlight of contemporary society, while also being barred from the conversation just for being born a woman, I’d be furious.
Unfortunately, this IS happening today, and I AM sitting here, seemingly helpless as racism and inequality run rampant in the modern world and the climate collapses in on itself. While I am personally not in a position to leverage influence or power in order to combat these trends, I can do what de Gouges did and write my own declaration stating that things need to change. Despite the fact that the French revolution dealt with much more concrete threats of violence and a looming Reign of Terror, we are more fortunate today. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and the landscape of human rights is much more developed today compared to 200 years ago, and while there is still work to be done, we are much further along in the pursuit of equality. So yes, while violence still exists in the world today, all the work of our ancestors has given us a choice: we can seek change through a concentrated effort of organization and mobilization and avoid a revolution as violent as the French one, if we play our cards right.
Olympe de Gouges gained a disdain for the status quo simply through her life experiences. For example, she had such a bad time being relegated as a second class citizen that after her husband died, she vowed to never marry again, lest she face the fate of being a homemaker with no agency over her own life. After she was widowed, she moved to Paris where she would fully indulge her craving to be heard. Olympe was very outspoken about not just a fundamental shift in how women were perceived in society, but about many other topics including: children’s rights, abolition, class equality and more. Olympe de Gouges herself was a prime example of just wat women were capable of. During her ascension to notoriety, many of her male contemporaries would often remark about how she forgets her place, and that a woman had no business in pondering the questions she had. This, of course, simply empowered her. It’s easy to say that women are equal to men in 2022, but in the late 18th century, these notions, no matter how outlandish they seem now, were very much commonly held beliefs. It was even scientific consensus at the time that women’s brains were physiologically incapable of rational and abstract thought. Yet here we have Olympe de Gouges spitting in the face of these asinine notions, forcing an intolerant society to look her in the eyes and tell her that she, a playwright of 40 plays, could not think rationally. That is what is so inspiring about de Gouges’s story to me. No matter what she was told, or taught, or subjected to, she held firmly to her beliefs and did not waver when the time came. A titan of a woman, de Gouges’s iron resolve will be remembered throughout history for generations to come.
We as humans are at our best when we are expressing our humanity. Art, music, poetry, theater, these are all seemingly simple modes of expression that humans have created and mastered over the eons, and yet they remain some of our most exciting and fulfilling pursuits to this day. Olympe de Gouges understood the impact of evoking an emotional response to get people to care about certain topics, and her brand of emotion was usually outrage. This was because most people at the time didn’t necessarily stop to think about the deeper messages, they were simply aghast that a woman would have the audacity to form these ideas, let alone publish them and use them to agitate the social hierarchy. It is the same today with matters like climate change. As it stands, climate change is poised to disproportionately devastate the global south, which has historically been kept unstable so that development would be slow and industrialized powers could keep using it as a pseudo-colony for cheap labor and material. Yet, when a climate activist group blocks a freeway, most lay people aren’t thinking “wow climate change must be really bad if it drove these people to stand on the highway during traffic hours!” Instead, they care more about how the protest has personally inconvenienced them and what they had planned for the day, actively harming the cause. The way to go about it these days is to stay true to your love for your community and use that expression as a motivator to make a change to the status quo.
Olympe de Gouges most impactful political commentary came in the form of her 40 plays, of which today only 12 survive. An ancient art that dates back to the Greeks themselves, theater is a supreme outlet for exploring social issues. Despite the fact that each production has its own theme and issues it wishes to explore, theater is especially unique because it allows not only the audience to walk away with their own interpretations, but it allows the actors to modulate the performance as they see fit. Her first play, L’Homme Généreux (The Generous Man) was never performed. In the play, women’s place in society was explored and examined by focusing on the main character who was a privileged frenchman with sexual frustrations. A year after her first play, she produced another titled Le Mariage Inattendu de Chérubin (Cherubin’s Unexpected Marriage) which also deals with the sexual inequality between man and woman at the time. In this play, a husband’s rape of his wife and the damage it did to the family. This play uniquely focused on the trauma of the situation, specifically with the rape victim and how the ordeal shattered her. Perhaps her most famous surviving play is titled L’Esclavage de Nègres, ou l’Heureux naufrage (Black Slavery; or the Happy Shipwreck). This play was the first one ever to explore slavery from the perspective of the slave. To me, this is an incredible feat during a time where slavery was contingent upon dehumanizing the enslaved populations. This is a premier example of de Gouges’s ability to intellectually appeal to the emotional aspect of people’s minds and bring about change. Sadly, like most aspects of de Gouges’s activism and writing, foul play was afoot. The play only enjoyed a limited run as it was sabatoged by French companies who relied heavily on the slave trade for labor. This was done by hiring hecklers and protesters to disrupt the play and its production, and the saboteurs won in the end. Once again, despite the groundbreaking and emotional nature of the advocacy, the status quo won out in the end.
Olympe de Gouges was a woman ahead of her time, but in order to reach that time, she had to be in the right place and the right historical period. I wish so badly that a woman of her caliber could have enjoyed the freedoms and protections of women in the modern day, because it is what she truly deserves. Yet we must be appreciative of her involuntary sacrifice, for without her, gender rights and the rights of many more would not be as developed and protected as they are now. The greatest way we can honor her memory is by waking up each day and questioning the current systems in place that arbitrarily decide who will be kept imprisoned within the dregs of society. We must do this through academic evaluations on how we do things, and constantly strive to push society to better itself each day. The worst thing we can do is to sit idly by growing lazy with our comforts such as AC and delivery takeout left at our doors as those who would seek to do us harm take advantage of our inaction. Once we realize our responsibilities as activists and citizens of Earth, we make it impossible for those who would do harm to realize their sinister goals. As de Gouges famously said, “Prejudice falls, morals are purified, and nature regains all her rights.” Only when we look past our own selfish preconceived notions of the world to see the potential of what could be will all peoples of the world unite in solidarity in order to build an existence on Earth that is equitable and equal for all.
Kuiper, Kathleen. “Olympe De Gouges.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/biography/Olympe-de-Gouges.
De Gouges, Olympe “The Declaration on the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen.” Declaration. 1791
“Olympe De Gouges (1748-1793).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/gouges/.