International Women’s Day: a French feminist pioneer

A rose with a few thorns

 

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. You can read about the events associated with it on the official website.  

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: I know, not the part of the world where you’d expect to find one. 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. 

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.”

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. I have absolutely no photos of it, which I shall rectify next time I go. Watch this space.

Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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13 Responses to International Women’s Day: a French feminist pioneer

  1. Phil says:

    Nice piece on Olympe and I enjoyed reading it – having found she is my ancestral grandmother. Her daughter, Genevieve, married William Wood and they emigrated to Australia from which our lineage spreads.
    Her character may explain why my family has such strong women! Love to see IWD spread internationally as we need to significantly recognise women for so much – it’s in my diary for next year.

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    • nessafrance says:

      I’m pleased you enjoyed the piece and was very interested to see that she was one of your forebears. I expect you know much more about her than I do, in that case. Also interesting to hear that you have strong women in the family – no doubt partly Olympe’s legacy! Have you ever visited Montauban, her birthplace and our préfecture?

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  2. Pingback: The Tale of Napoleon’s Thumb | A writer's lot in France

  3. Mary McKinley says:

    Hi:

    While it’s largely ignored in the US because its origins are connected to workers’ rights and women’s suffrage (read: Socialism), I first encountered it when working in Budapest where every female employee was given a flower. Here in France, especially here in Mme Royal’s regional headquarters of Poitiers, it’s also a big deal. Yesterday I was given a commemorative bracelet by my female program director.

    The UN was also very late to the game – it goes back 100 years!

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    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, the UN simply made official what had already been going on in various places for some years. I can’t say I had noticed much going on down here yesterday, but then we are in the deep countryside. And women still have some way to go in France to achieve equal pay etc.
      What a nice idea to give commemorative bracelets – I hope it’s in a style you’ll want to wear!

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  4. I only just found out it was International Women’s Day this evening too. But I don’t suppose that even if I’d known it would have made a difference to my day!
    Fascinating account of a brave and interesting woman’s life. Thank you.

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    • nessafrance says:

      I can’t say I’ve noticed rejoicing in the streets today, so I don’t think it makes a tangible difference. For us, I suppose, most of the battles have been won (although you might not think so, sometimes, down here) but there are so many women oppressed in other parts of the world that I hope the day is a symbol for them, whether they know about it or not.

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  5. h martin says:

    De Gouges has another connection to Quercy; her natural father, who never recognised her, was Jean-Jacques Lefranc de Caïx, the chateau west of Cahors, on the Lot, which is now the home of the Queen of Denmark and her French Lotois husband Prince Henrik. The wine side of the chateau is visitable. In 2007 Segolène Royal suggested that de Gouges’s remains be removed to the Panthéon but it transpired that her remains, like many corpses from the Reign of Terror, were long lost

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    • nessafrance says:

      Thank you for this extra piece of information. Has it actually been proven that he was her natural father? She apparently believed that he was, but I don’t know what the evidence is for it. However, I might well have missed it since I’m not very well read on De Gouges, although I’m planning to read her Déclaration. Nonetheless, it is another Quercy connection, since she plainly believed in it.

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    • h martin says:

      I don’t suppose one can be certain but I think it is known that the two supposed parents had an affair and that the ‘father’ was sent away, to distance himself from the mother- presumably the family disapproved. The fact that she stuck so rigidly to the belief suggests that maybe her mother told her- or maybe she was just a romantic!

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  6. Jo Lamb says:

    Hi Vanessa, International Womens Day is very important here in Italy, the fellas all take a day off to look after the kids while the women lunch together, go to the movies or shopping and generally have a day to themselves. The national symbol here is the Mimosa tree, though after the recent weather are looking a little sad. For me though its an important date because 2 of our granddaughters were born today, one will be 6 and one 3, now how is that for convenient!

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    • nessafrance says:

      Hi Jo, it’s interesting to hear that the Italians are so into IWD – not the first country to spring to mind in association with feminist tendencies! It doesn’t seem to have hit the spot in rural France: I didn’t notice any difference at the village market this morning.

      How nice that two of your granddaughters share their birthdays with IWD. Also makes their birthdays easier to remember, of course…

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