The following is translated from the description of an exhibition of Korean artist Nam June Paik (1932-2006) at the Grand Palais in Paris, in June-July 2018.
"Olympe de Gouges (1989) – writer, feminist pioneer and anti-slavery activist, executed in 1793 – is a robot made out of twelve CTR colour televisions inserted in a frame made out of twelve wooden ancient tvs. The work itself is on laser VD. On the sides are painted chinese characters meaning “French woman, Truth, Goodness, Beauty, Liberty, Passion” refering to the wording of the commission to the artist by the City of Paris for the celebrations of the bicentenial of the French Revolution in 1789."
In 1783 Olympe wrote her first play, Zamore et Mirza, ou l’heureux naufrage, and submitted to the Comédie Française. The actors liked it and accepted it. Unfortunately, her later dispute with Beaumarchais over Le Marriage Innatendu de Chérubin, meant that the Comédie just sat on her play and refused to put it on. The contract she had signed with them meant that it could not be played elsewhere in Paris. So Olympe took the play elsewhere, with her own theatrical troup, which included her son, and performed it in private theatres and in the provinces. In 1786, she had the play printed for the fist time. Two years later, she printed it again, with a postface, her “Réflections sur les hommes nègres” in which she explained what the philosophy behind the play was. Why are black people treated like animals, she asked?
[I] clearly observed that it was force and prejudice that had condemned them to this horrible slavery, that Nature had no part in it and that the unjust and powerful interest of the Whites was responsible for it all.
In 1788, Olympe was already sensing a change for the better in politics, and felt it her duties to show the world that if they wanted to redress injustice, slavery was the place to start:
When will work be undertaken to change it, or at least to temper it? I know nothing of Governments' Politics, but they are fair, and never has Natural Law been more in evidence. They cast a benevolent eye on all the worst abuses. Man everywhere is equal.
As she pointed out in January 1790, in an open letter to an (anonymous) American colonist attacking her play, at the time she wrote Zamore and Mirza, there was no organised French abolitionist movement. The Societé des Amis des Noirs did not yet exist. She ponders in that letter, whether it was her play that caused Brissot and the others to create that society, or whether it was just a happy coincidence:
I can therefore assure you, Sir, that the Friends of the Blacks did not exist when I conceived of this subject, and you should rather suppose that it is perhaps because of my drama that this society was formed, or that I had the happy honour of coincidence with it.
In fact, Brissot did take note of the play, and in the winter 1789, he made use of his growing influence to persuade the actors of the Comédie Française, finally to put it on. Unfortunately, the actors bore a grudge, so they arranged for the play to be put on on the last day of the year, after which Parisians would be returning to their family homes to celebrate the New Year. The contract required that a play make a certain amount of money in the first three days if it was to stay on the program. The first night was a success – but a political rather than an artistic one. People came to support it and to protest against it, and they were so loud about it, that few could hear the actors. Fortunately the text was in print, and reviewers at the time noted that they’d had to refer to the printed version to know how the play ended.
Those who protested against the play most vociferously were the colonists, who had strong financial interest in the laws regarding slavery staying as they were. One such colonist wrote to Gouges, imputing that she was but the tool of Brissot’s society, and that her play was a call for the slaves of America to revolt. Gouges responded in an open letter, (1790) arguing, as we saw, that it was she, not Brissot, who’d first given voice to the abolitionist in France, and that her play did not incite revolution, but that it enjoined the French people and the colonists to see that all men were equal and abolish slavery, and the slaves to trust in the new laws and wait for a better future.
Two years later, these accusations came back when the slaves and the free people of colour of Saint-Domingue revolted.
Not many in the eighteenth century agreed that women should be writers of anything other than gossipy letters. But even those who did found it hard to agree as to when was the best time for a woman to become a writer.
A woman who had the misfortune not to be married or have children could write at any time, provided she did not disturb her relatives. Hence Jane Austen would get up early, before her family’s breakfast, and write at the dining table. Afterwards there was household tasks to attend to, of course, and any other time she could take up a pen was devoted to writing letters to family members who were away.
Considerations of respectability only applied to respectable women, of course. So Olympe de Gouges, widowed, living under her assumed name instead of her husbands (Aubry), bringing up her boy alone, assisted financially by her lover, and pursuing a career as a playwright could write when she wanted to. This is probably why her biographer lists over 140 pieces penned by Olympe in the last five years of her life. (Her writing career began 1788 and she died in 1793)
Little is known of Sophie de Grouchy’s writing habits, except for a report from her aunt that as a twenty year old, staying in a convent finishing school in Normandy, she spent so much time reading and translating that she made herself ill and damaged her eyesight. Given that the social life of the school was quite active – the idea was for the young women to be presented to society and hopefully find husbands – Sophie probably worked during the night, by candlelight. The only obstacle standing between her and her work then was her social life, and it is likely that even when she married and became a mother this carried on, i.e. that her activities as a saloniere were the only thing that stopped her from writing when she wanted to. Her daughter, Eliza, had a wetnurse, so that Sophie was not bound by the usual duties of motherhood.
Manon Roland was firmly opposed to wet-nursing, being a follower of Rousseau, and a middle class woman, less able to ‘adopt’ a nurse, i.e. invite a woman to become a permanent member of the family and live under their roof until she could be retired.
Manon also had some duties at home. Even though she had servants, they had to be trained, supervised, their work had to be done for them when they were sick and big jobs, such as laundry, had to be shared, and dinner had to be ordered, and prepared by herself when she wanted something done in a particular manner. And most importantly, children – in her case a daughter, Eudora – had to be educated following Rousseauian precepts. But none of this, Manon reflected, ought to take particularly long, so that a good mother and housewife ought still to have plenty of time for study and writing.
Those who know how to organize their work always have leisure time. It is those that do nothing that lack the time to do anything. Moreover it is not surprising that women who spend their time in useless visiting and who think they are badly dressed if they have not spent a great deal of time at their mirror, find their days too long through boredom and too short for their duties. But I have seen those we call good housewives become unbearable to the world and even their husbands through a tiresome attention to little things.
Manon’s stance was not unlike that of Mary Wollstonecraft, who claimed that a married middle class woman with children was in an ideal position, once her children were at school and no longer needed her full time attention, to take up science, literature or the arts.
And did they pursue a plan of conduct, and not waste their times in following the fashionable vagaries of dress, the management of their household and children need not shut them out from literature, nor prevent their attaching themselves to a science, with that steady eye which strengthens the mind, or practicing one of the fine arts that cultivate the taste (VRW).
Both in Roland and Wollstonecraft’s case, however, the life plan that would allow women to write while mothering young children relied very much on a reformed, republican and proto-feminist model of family life in which only necessary household duties were perfomed - the ‘vagaries of dress’ to be avoided and ‘if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers’.
I expect a woman to keep her family’s linen and clothing in good order, to feed her children, order, or herself cook dinner, this without talking about it, keeping her mind free and ordering her time so that she is able to talk of something else, and to please, at last, through her mood, as well as the charms of her sex
So what would an 18th woman who wanted to write but had no expectations that a revolution would bring about major changes in her household duties do?
This was the case of Hannah Mather Crocker, born in Boston in 1752, writer of several books and pamphlets, including “Observations on the Real Rights of Women” a work in which she cites Wollstonecraft amongst others. Crocker, although she had always been philosophically inclined, only began to write in earnest once her ten children had left home, remarking that this period in a woman’s life was :
a fully ripe season to read, write, meditate and compose, if the body and mind are not enfeebled by infirmities.
In other words, if bringing up ten children hasn’t left you a mental and physical wreck, now is the time to pursue a literary or philosophical career!
On 15 January 1793, Louis Capet, previously King of France, is found guilty by an overwhelming majority of the 749 deputies. Two days later, the deputies are asked to vote for a penalty. 346 vote for the death penalty. Others, including Thomas Paine, who had been offered honorary French citizenship, vote for exile, or for imprisonement.
One citizen, who had not voted, argued against the death penalty. Olympe de Gouges started by offering herself as Louis’s unofficial advocate on 16 December, arguing at first that while as a King, he had done harm to the people of France by his very existence, once Royalty had been abolished, he was no longer guilty.
As king, I believe Louis to be in the wrong, but take away this proscribed title and he ceases to be guilty, in the eyes of the republic.
This proposal, written as a letter to the Convention, was then printed as a placard and distributed throughout Paris. The Convention disregarded the letter. Sèze was made Louis’ advocate, and the argument that Gouges put forward was not taken into consideraton. Louis Capet, stripped of his title, was still tried for high treason, i.e. for actions he had performed while he was still King of France.
Olympe did not stop at this. On 18 January, after the King had been found guilty, but before his death had been voted, she put up another placard addressed to the Convention and to the people of Paris, entitled “Decree of Death against Louis Capet, presented by Olympe de Gouges.” In this piece she also attempted to dispel the mistaken impression that she was in fact a royalist.
Louis dead will still enslave the Universe. Louis alive will break the chains of the Universe by smashing the sceptres of his equals. If they resist? Well! Let a noble despair immortalize us. It has been said, with reason, that our situation is neither like that of the English nor the Romans. I have a great example to offer posterity; here it is: Louis' son is innocent, but he could be a pretender to the crown and I would like to deny him all pretension. Therefore I would like Louis, his wife, his children and all his family to be chained in a carriage and driven into the heart of our armies, between the enemy fire and our own artillery. (http://www.olympedegouges.eu/decree_of_death.php)
Here Gouges is appealing to a well-known fact about the workings of royalism: a King cannot die. The holder of the title may die, but the title passes automatically to the next contender, without, even, the necessity of sacrament. The immortality of the king was such an important precept that a Chancelier, when a monarch died, could not wear mourning. Bossuet captured the phenomenon thus in his Mirror for Kings:
Letting Louis live, she would go on to argue in her final published piece, 'Les trois urnes'. would have made it clear that he was no longer a threat to the republic - as no one individual is. To execute him is both to betray a certain lack of confidence in whether the people have truly succeeded in aboloshing the monarchy, and perpetuate that doubt, as after Louis's death, his title is transferred to his descendent.
On 7 November 2017, 314 Francophone teachers signed and published a document promising not to teach or enforce a particular rule of French grammar:
"Le masculin l'emporte sur le féminin" - that is, when a noun group is of mixed gender, the corresponding pronouns and adjectives should be written in the masculine form, because that form is 'stronger' or 'wins over' the feminine one.
For instance, a group of men reading is refered to as 'lecteurs', a group of women reading as 'lectrices' but a mixed group as 'lecteurs'.
Proponents of Inclusive Writing suggest that it should be 'lecteur·rice·s'
The guardians of the French language, the Academicians, who are in charge of vetting new dictionary entries and proposals for grammatical reform, immediately rose against the proposal, declaring it to constitute a 'mortal danger' for the French language'.
The minister of education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, agreed, adding that it was 'very ugly' and that real feminists should concern themselves with other, more important problems.
The Prime Minister Edouard Philippe followed suite, declaring that the new 'écriture inclusive' would not be legal in official documents.
Two years before the petition for inclusive writing was signed, historian Eliane Viennot addressed the National Assembly on the need to reform language. She has since been an active member of the movement and noted that far from being new, the idea that language should be reformed to include women as equals dates back, in France, to the Revolution, and in particular to Olympe de Gouges.
According to Viennot, Gouges's Declaration of the Rights of Woman was a direct challenge to the failure to include women in the new Constitution. Viennot points out that 'l'homme' in French does not, and never did correspond to 'humanity', but really only to male humanity. Counting the number of uses of the word in several authors of the Enlightenment, she says it is clear that the word is not meant to include women, except on a few occasions. Pretending that the use of the masculine is neutral or universal is pure hypocrisy - except if we understand 'universal to mean 'applying to men only' which in the French 'universal suffrage' of 1848 , it did.
Olympe was tried at the Conciergerie on 2 November 1793.
After she was arrested on 20 July she had been held first, at the Prison de l'Abbaye, transfered to the hospital prison of La Petite Force - she was suffering from an infected cut on her leg - and finally she paid to be incarcerated at a private pension on Chemin Vert.
The public prosecutor of the Revolutionary Tribunal was Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinvinlle, a zealous and ruthless officer of the Terror, who took his turn at the Guillotine in 1795.
Olympe was introduced as 'Marie Olympe de Gouges, veuve Aubry. born in Montauban, aged 38 (she was in fact close to 45), residence: rue du Harlay section du Pont Neuf'.
She was charged with' having composed a work contrary to the expressed desire of the entire nation', and according to Article 1 of law of 29 march 1793: Whoever is convicted of producing writings advocation for the dissolution of national representation [...] will be sentenced to death." she was sentenced to death by the guillotine.
She would have been excecuted on that same day, but, after the order was read, she announced that she was pregnant.
'My enemies will not have the glory of seeing my blood flow. I am pregnant and will bear a citoyen or citoyenne for the Republic'
According to the law, she was to be examined by health officers who had been named by Robespierre 8 months previoulsy, after the Revolutionary Tribunal was founded, and by a Midwife, Veuve Prioux.
Her cell at the Conciergerie was the same one Marie-Antoinette had been held in after her attempted escape. It was isolated, for the purpose of keeping prisoners 'au secret'. The infirmary was just outside that cell, a dire place, if we are to believe the description of a surviving prisoner, Beugnot:
Seven by thirty metres, closed on both sides by iron fences, two narrow windows, vaulted roof, like some sort of gothic hell. 40 or 50 dirty straw beds on either side, with two or three patients each, sharing unwashed blankets. The privies were in the middle of the infirmaries, and there sick patients who had collapsed on the way lay in their own waste. The corpses, three or four each day, were removed at a specific hour of day, and until that time, the dead remained in bed with the sick.
All that is now left of this room is one of its narrow windows, which is visible from the women's courtyard.
The medical team concluded that if Olympe was pregnant, it was too early to tell.
Fouquier-Tinville chose to ignore their doubt, and declared that her claim had been found to be false:
The Public Prosecutor notes that the accused was incarcerated for the past five months and that according to regulations no contact was allowed between men and women in prisons. Therefore she made it up in order to avoid the death penalty.
There was in fact much romantic commerce between prisoners, as they were kept in adjoining wards, and often not very efficiently. In any case, Olympe had been staying in a private pension for mixed prisoners, a fact that Fouquier Tinville chose to ignore.
Olympe was arrested on 20 July 1793.
Three weeks before that, she was moving her furniture from Paris to a small house she had bought in the countryside near Tours, and where she was about to retire. She had been away visiting properties and spending time with her son, but had come back to Paris to see to the removal of her things.
Olympe knew that by being in Paris, and publishing more political tracts, she was putting herself at risk. But the decree against the Gironde had just been issued and she felt she had to do something. Her Political Testament, written at time, reflects her anger and uneasiness:
If, in a final effort, I can still save the republic, (chose publique), I desire that even while they immolate me to their fury, my sacrificers still envy my fate. And if one day, posterity notices women, perhaps the memory of my name will be of value. I have planned everything. I know that my death is unavoidable, but how beautiful and glorious it is, for a well-born soul, when ignominious death threatens all good citizens, still to give one's life for our dying country!
Her next tract, The Three Urns, is an attack on the Paris Commune.
It is printed by her imprimeur, Longuet, on 15 July. He draws 1000 copies. She sends a copy to the committee of public safety, and one to Herault de Seychelle, then she waits a few days - no reply, which she takes to mean that she can go ahead. Her distributer, or afficheur, is a Citizen Meunier who lives in the Rue de la Huchette.
On 20 July, Olympe leaves her apartment on the Ile de la Cite, crosses the bridge St Michel, and turns left into the Rue de la Huchette. The Pont St Michel and the Rue de la Huchette are still there. The actual Pont St Michel dates from the mid-nineteenth century. Earlier photographs show a similar looking bridge, with four arches, rather than two, and less flat. And back in the eighteenth century, it would still have had the more traditional aspect of the Medieval bridge, it would have been covered in wooden shops and houses.
The members of the Commune are reputed to have met in a tavern on the Rue de la Huchette. If true, this may well have influenced Meunier's decision not to post Olympe's Three Urns. What he actually told her, on the morning of her arrest, is that he was worried that it would rain. One imagines Olympe looking up at the clear sky, puzzled, before she set out to find another distributor on the Pont St Michel. But when she got there, Meunier's daugher, who had followed her pointed her out to three policemen and members of the national guard, She was arrested her and taken to the Depot prison of the Mairie.
Olympe de Gouges was brought in to the Prison de l'Abbaye three weeks after Manon. The two must have overlapped, for a few days and maybe they talked, exchanged a few pleasantries. But Olympe was not the kind of woman Manon liked to talk to, not respectable enough, not mindful of her virtue or reputation. In any case, it’s unlikely that Olympe was in a talkative mood. A week earlier, she had cut her leg, falling off a car, and the wound was infected. The guardians at l’Abbaye decided they could keep her – it would not do for a prisoner of as high a profile as Madame de Gouges to die before she was tried. So she was transferred to another prison, the Petite Force, previously a prison for prostitutes, and the scene of the Princesse de Lamballe’s massacre the previous year, but now converted to an infirmary for prisonners. No doubt the conversion didn’t amount to much and Olympe did not want to stay there. She sold her jewels and paid to be transferred to a private pension for sick prisoners on the Chemin Vert. Unlike the Abbaye or the Force, this is a prison for both men and women, and soon, Olympe finds herself pregnant at the age of nearly forty-five.
Only three weeks afterwards, on 28 October Olympe was taken to the Conciergerie and put there in isolation for four nights in the same cell where Marie Antoinette had spent her last days, just two weeks previously.
Then on 2 November, she is tried. As she is accused of having printed a pamphlet against Robespierre, raising the possibility of a constitutional monarchy, she cannot plead innocent. Not only had she written the pamphlet in question, the Three Urnes, but she had herself posted it on the walls of Paris, after her distributor deserted her. So instead of pleading innocence she pleaded pregnancy. She was examined and the doctors confirmed that there was a good chance she might be pregnant - but it was too early to tell. She herself testified that she recognised the signs, that had felt the same way on the two occasions she'd been pregnant before. (This is, incidentally, the only mention of a second child, who must sadly have died). Her prosecutor, the infamous Fouquier-Tinville, however, refused to consider the evidence on the grounds that she had been in a female only environment (conveniently forgetting her stay at the Chemin Vert pension).
The next day, Olympe climbed the stairs up to the Rue de Mai, stepped into the charette, and was driven to her execution. Her last words: “Children of France, you will avenge my death!”
Some male French historians, it seems, still are not very comfortable with the idea that a number of women played a significant role in history. Olivier Blanc, who wrote an excellent biography of Olympe de Gouges is not one of them. And perhaps it is that my sample is small, and it is definitely old.
For the bicentenary of the 14th July, Pleiade came up with a small illustrated volume about the writers of the Revolution. The editor of the volume, the essayist Pierre Gascar (1916-1997), managed a very respectable selection of male writers, and wrote about the with the reverence they deserved. One gets the feeling that even the most psychopathic amongst them have to be treated fairly - after all, they played a role in the revolution that shaped the French nation we know and love.
What he did not do, however, was waste much time on the women writers of the period. Except for one, who is mentioned on nine (four of which are pictures) occasions, with one fairly long section in which her name recurs, and the others passing comments. That was Olympe de Gouges.
In two of the passing comments, Gascar uses the adjective 'ardante' to describe her. That is, Olympe de Gouges, was 'fervent' or 'passionate'. She was also, driven to a near 'delirium' by her attempt to assert herself in the political scene. She was, Gascar tells us, led in all things by the desire to succeed, and the need for glory. But because she was a woman, he concludes, she presented a 'disarming' picture of the thirst for fame.
Her writings did not reflect her judgments, but rather her sentiments. Her objection to putting the king to death was not based on any belief that this could harm the revolution, or that it would be morally wrong, but on disgust.
Lucky for her, she is not the only woman philosopher of the revolution to have been portrayed as a passionate figure driven by ambition but incapable of judgment. In 1927, Jean Martin, writing about this all but forgotten (because largely insignificant) member of the Girondins, Achille Duchatellet, describes Sophie de Grouchy as a 'fiery head'. He derives this description from one by her friend Dumont, who wrote about Sophie that she had :
A serious character, a mind that flourished on philosophical meditations, republican readings, and a passion for Rousseau's works had inflamed her head.
Describing a letter Sophie wrote to Dumont about the state of French politics after the massacre of the Champs de Mars, Martin alerts to the overflowing feminity of the letter, and the instances of 'coquetry' that fill in the spaces between the writers' attempt to engage with the political thought of her time. But, Martin notes generously, she does make a sensible point in passing, about governments in general presenting an obstacle to enlightenment.
The rest of her descriptions, however, only serve to 'stir her nerves' because she dreams of a moving persecution of which she would be the heroine.
Her thoughts on the subject of how to educate a reasonable woman are the occasion for Martin to show us that Sophie is vain - she must be the reasonable woman in question. She is also, he notes, being ridiculously unfair to Dumont, when she notes that it will be a while before men treat women as reasonable being ('Not all men!).
This, is the sort of drivel that we have to wade through in order to study the history of women philosophers. It is a research project all by itself, and I suppose as such interesting. But it leaves a very unpleasant taste.
At the end of a treatise in which she takes on Rousseau's analysis of human progress, Olympe de Gouges makes the following proposal: a second French theatre, or The National Theatre.
A great number of well-born women are ruined because men, who have seized everything for themselves have prevented women to elevate themselves, and to obtain for themselves useful and lasting resources. Why should my sex not one day be rescued from this thoughtlessness to which their lack of emulation exposes them? Women have always written. They have been allowed to contend with men in the theatrical profession. But they would need proof of greater encouragement. Such is my plan:
She goes on to describe an institution that would take in children from respectable but poor families, educate them in the arts and train them as actors, but always with a view to their respectability.
After a few years, these children would constitute a troop of actors and would be offered the opportunity to produce plays. Those that chose not to, could pursue any other career in the arts.
But as many of the fashionable plays of the times were not, to Olympe's mind, respectable, she would enlist the help of writers who are not given to scurrulous plots, and whose works are not usually performed, i.e. women. She says she herself has 32 plays ready to go, and that many other women have penned good plays.
Thus Olympe aims to kill two birds with one stone:
Give women playwrights the chance to work, and reform the arts by providing a national artistic education so that would be artists do not resort to demeaning themselves in order to pursue their arts.
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.