A French feminist loses her head
The outspoken opinions of playwright and social reformer Olympe de Gouges see her end up on the guillotine
TheFrench playwright Olympe de Gouges was, by any standards, one of the most extraordinary women of her day. Born in 1748, she established her own theatre company, campaigned against slavery and even published a pamphlet, Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, which begins with the words: “Women are born free and remain equal to men in rights.”
But as the French Revolution slid into sectarian bloodshed, Gouges’ outspokenness made her dangerous. By 1793, horrified by the extremism of Robespierre and the Jacobins, she had produced a subversive poster demanding a national referendum that would let people choose between a republic, a loose federation or a restored monarchy. That was too much for the regime. Shortly after her friends in the moderate Girondin faction had been arrested, the Jacobins came for her, too.
On 4 November a Parisian chronicler recorded her fate. “Yesterday, at seven o’clock in the evening, a most extraordinary person called Olympe de Gouges who held the imposing title of woman of letters, was taken to the scaffold,” he wrote. “She approached the scaffold with a calm and serene expression on her face, and forced the guillotine’s furies, which had driven her to this place of torture, to admit that such courage and beauty had never been seen before.”
It was a tragic end for such a brave woman. One Jacobin declared that her fate was a lesson for every woman who “abandoned the cares of her home, to meddle in the affairs of
A late 18th-century portrait of Olympe de Gouges. The playwright and social reformer was executed after she “meddled in the affairs of the Republic”