Two hundred and thirty years ago today a unique visionary French feminist of the Enlightenment Olympe de Gouges was guillotined…

The execution took place the day after she had stood trial for her writings which had criticising the descent of the high deals of the French Revolution into recrimination and bloodshed….

…….the execution took place ….towards 4 P.M. ; while mounting the scaffold, the condemned, looking to the people, cried out “ Children of the Fatherland, you will avenge my death.” Universal cries of “Vive la République” were heard amongst the spectators waving hats in the air…

De Gouges and the noted Girondin Madame Roland, who followed her under the blade five days later, were betrayed victims of the unfinished business of a general cleaning up of moderates and dissidents that had been instigated with the Montagnard Coup d’État of June 1793, where the sans-culottes of Paris had stormed the Convention and arrested twenty-nine Girondin club Deputies and two Ministers. Eight days later the Jacobin Club members who had instigated the coup gained control of the Committee of Public Safety. With this the early idealist, constitutionalist phase of the Revolution was ended and the heated discussions of the Revolution’s inceptive phase would be now addressed by the judicial assassination of anyone challenging the perceived Republican orthodoxies.

De Gouges had originally arrived in Paris from South-west France in 1768, funded by a male protector. She socialised in the fashionable Salons of the Enlightenment, whose many philosophes developed their own private Republic of letters where progress and tolerance were the ideals that spread from their debates from “Edinburgh to Naples, Paris to Berlin”, and even reached the humbler reading clubs of Belfast and Doagh .

De Gouges frequented the Salon of Louis Philippe II’s mistress Madame de Montesson and the Salon of Fanny de Beauharnais, both of whom were published playwrights. She encountered the ideas of the Marquis de Condorcet whose progressivism and whose critique of slavery and the patriarchy she would adopt and develop into a more radical vision. During the 1780s she published novels and plays but also political pamphlets, such as her critique of slavery, Réflexions sur les Hommes Nègres written in 1788 on the eve of the Revolution. She greeted the Revolution as the dawning of necessary change, only to discover that the égalité of the philosophes was conceived by those men elected to the Convention to be a right exclusively pertaining to men. De Gouges’ most well-known pamphlet would be her response. La Declaration des Droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne (The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen) was a satiric and stinging attack on the obvious limitations of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” (Autumn, 1789) which laid the theoretical ground work for the French constitution of 1791. De Gouges’ work substantially reproduces the original text, sarcastically replacing the word “man” with the word “woman”. In many ways she anticipates the modern feminist critiques of a simplistic universalism. De Gouges added specific demands that demonstrate the ways in which what are commonly considered as gender neutral universal rights are exposed as implicitly male centred .

De Gouges’ satirical absurdism is not that distant from that of other political satirists such as Jonathan Swift or Karl Radek,. Radek was allegedly the originator of every “Stalin joke” current in the capitol during the Moscow Purge Trials.

With the arrest of the moderate and progressive politicians she’d supported , the Gironde, she wrote a vehement attack on the extremism of the Committee of Public Safety, Les Trois Urnes ou le Salut de la Patrie par un Voyageur Aérien in July 1793. Its suggestion that France needed to choose between a Republic and a Constitutional Monarchy was regarded as a covert plea to restore the Bourbons This was a capital offence. On 20th July 1793 she was arrested.

Her personal attacks on Maximilien Robespierre the previous year were remembered when in August he was elected president of the Convention. She had compared Robespierre’s burgeoning ambitions with those of the late King , echoing Louvet’s accusation that Robespierre sought a dictatorship. Robespierre had indignantly responded in the Convention. De Gouges’ mock apology to Robespierre, her Réponse à la Justification de Maximilien Robespierre derisively suggested “Robespierre, be true to your frequent oaths …’

Je te propose de prendre avec moi un bain de la Seine; mais pour te laver entièrement des taches don’t tu t’es couvert depuis le 10 , nous attacherons des boulets de seize ou de vingt-quarte à nous pieds, et nous nous précipiterons ensemble dans les flots ….

(I suggest we should bathe together in the Seine but to entirely depurgate you of those blemishes with which you have smeared yourself since 10th June, we should attach sixteen or twenty-four pound cannon balls to our feet , and together race into the flood ….)

De Gouges’ real sin was to believe she could speak out against those who controlled the levers of power , she had words, but they could deploy physical force. Her passionate rejection of violence as a brutalist political tool was what had eventually brought her to the scaffold. She remains in our collective social memory as an Enlightenment era Medusa, brought to the blade for mirroring to the revolutionary leadership reified abuses of power that they, due to their conventional or conservative mindsets, were either unable or unwilling to acknowledge.

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