Olympe de Gouges – writer, feminist, victim

Olympe de Gouges

As promised, another last letter from a victim of the French revolution, Olympe de Gouges.

Her real name was Marie Gouze and she was one of the very few women to play an active part in the defence of the democratic ideal of 1789. But unlike Mme Roland she had no fortune. She is known as the ancestor of modern feminism by virtue of her Déclaration des droits de la femme, a riposte to a Déclaration des droits de l’homme that excluded the ‘weaker sex’ from civil and political responsibilities, but maintained their penal responsibilities.

‘Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must also have the right to mount the tribune,’ she wrote.

A radical – in 1789 she put on a play against slavery at the Comédie-Française – Olympe des Gouges was also against violence – ‘the very blood of the guilty sullies revolution for all eternity.’ Her offer to act as the king’s defence at his trial caused a scandal. Refused permission to speak, she turned to her pen and wrote a great many political pamphlets, plays and even notices which she posted up all over Paris.

After the eviction and arrest of the more moderate Girondists she wrote to the Tribunal in their defence and was censored. Despite the risk she published a federalist tract, Les Trois Umes, in which she proposed that the French could choose their form of government by referendum. She was immediately arrested and after several months in different prisons she was condemned to death and executed on 3 November 1793. An observer noted her ‘steadiness’ on the scaffold. Someone remarked that they were ‘killing intelligence.’

Here is her final letter, to her son. As with all the other letters discovered in the archives it was never delivered.

To Citizen Degouges, general officer in the army of the Rhine.

I die, my dear son, a victim of my idolatry for the fatherland and for the people. Under the specious mask of republicanism, her enemies have brought me remorselessly to the scaffold.

After five months of captivity I was transferred to a maison de santé in which I was as free as I would have been at home. I could have escaped… but convince that all malevolence combining to ensnare me could not make me take a single step against the Revolution, I myself demanded to go to trial. Could I have believed that unmuzzled tigers would themselves be judges against the laws, even against that assembled public that will soon reproach them with my death?

I was presented with my indictment three days before my death; from the moment this indictment was signed the law gave me the right to see my defenders and whomsoever else I chose to assist my case. All were prevented from seeing me. I was kept as if in solitary confinement, unable to speak even to the gaoler. I was given the list at midnight, and the following day at 7 ‘clock, I was taken to the Tribunal, weak and sick, and lacking the art of speaking to the public; like Jean-Jacques and also on account of his virtues, I was all too aware of my inadequacy. I asked for the défenseur officieux that I had chosen. I was told that there wasn’t one or that he did not wish to take on my cause; I ased for another to take his place. I was told that I had enough wit to defend myself.

Yes, no doubt I had enough to spare to defend my innocence, which was evident to the eyes of all present. I do not deny that a defenseur officieaux could have done much more for me in pointing out all the services and benefits that I have brought the people.

Twenty times I made my executioners pale and not knowing how to reply to each sentence that betrayed my innocence and their bad faith, they sentenced me to death, lest the peope be led to consider my fate as the greatest example of iniquity the world hs ever seen.

Farewell my son, I shall be no more when you receive this letter. But leave your post, the injustice done to your mother and the crime committed against her are reason enough.

I die, my dear son; I die innocent. All laws have been violated for the most virtuous woman of her century… always remember the good advice that I have given you.

I leave your wife’s watch as well as the receipt for her jewellery at the pawnbrokers, the jar and the keys to the trunk that I sent to Tours.

De Gouges.

Source: Last Letters by Oliver Blanc.

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