I need to point out that this post was written in 2011. Nonetheless, IWD is held every year on 8th March, so the post remains as relevant to subsequent years.
How many of you know that it is International Women’s Day today, 8th March? Hmm, I thought so. It even passed me by until I saw it on the 20h00 news yesterday – and I thought my feminist credentials were impeccable. Since 1977, when it was officially inaugurated as a worldwide event by the United Nations, there have been celebrations of women’s rights throughout the world on this date, drawing attention to the many abuses of women that still exist.
We have a local heroine of women’s rights in southwest France. Olympe de Gouges, née Marie Gouze, was born in Montauban (our préfecture) in 1748 to petit bourgeois parents: her father was a butcher. She always suspected that she was the illegitimate daughter of the Marquis de Pompignan, which might have given her the folies de grandeur that propelled her to greater things than her provincial origins would normally have done.
Advocate of human rights
An early, loveless marriage in 1765 produced a son, and then her husband died in 1770. She subsequently moved to Paris with her son, took the name Olympe de Gouges and started frequenting influential salons. She became a playwright and pursued her art to protest, first, against slavery. She increasingly advocated freedom and human rights and made it her life’s work to oppose injustice.
Olympe de Gouges became a passionate advocate of the rights of man and, initially, welcomed the French Revolution. She revised her opinions, however, when égalité obviously applied only to men (as, in some ways, it still does). In 1791, she wrote the Déclaration des droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne (Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen) in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. She coined the phrase, “A woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must also possess the right to mount the rostrum.”
Disappointment of the French Revolution
The French constitution of 1791 did not even consider the possibility of extending suffrage to women. Neither did it consider issues such as equality in marriage, divorce or a woman’s right to own property. Olympe de Gouges sought to redress these omissions in her document. She questioned what women had gained from the Revolution and concluded that the answer was nothing.
Olympe de Gouges’ document represents an early and very important attempt to get the rights of women recognised. Her arguments were based on an unshakable belief that men and women are equal and that society would be a better place if women had the same rights as men, especially in political institutions.
Her vehemence and individuality did not endear her to the revolutionary leaders. She became a thorn in Maximilien Robespierre’s side. Her downfall came when she urged a plebiscite proposing a choice between three different forms of government, one of which was a restored monarchy. She was guillotined in November 1793.
What an extraordinary woman she must have been. At a time when women were granted little or no influence in public affairs (even if they sometimes ruled the roost in the home), she was a visionary born out of her time. It’s a shame that some of her ideas took almost 200 years to gain universal acceptance: in Switzerland, for example, women were given the vote only in 1971.
Montauban itself is sadly neglected by travel writers and overlooked in favour of its more glamorous big sister, Toulouse. The theatre in Montauban is named after Olympe de Gouges.
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