Olympe de Gouges is famous for having claimed that 'marriage is the tomb of love'. And as happened with Mary Wollstonecraft, she runs the risk of being read as a defender of free love, scornful of monogamous unions. This, however, misunderstands her position, which is a criticism of certain social manifestations of marriage, which run deeper than just a comment on love and unions, and addresses the reduced capacity of humans for co-operation as they learn to believe in the superiority of reason and science over everything else.
Reconsider animals, consult the elements, study plants, finally, cast an eye over all the variations of all living organisms; yield to the evidence that I have given you: search, excavate and discover, if you can, sexual characteristics in the workings of nature: everywhere you will find them intermingled, everywhere cooperating harmoniously within this immortal masterpiece.
Olympe is not simply criticizing men's capacity to see women as ally they ought to co-operate with, but as missing the point of co-operation generally, because they are 'puffed up with science'. She is, it seems, criticizing the rise of individualism, of the belief that reason alone is our master, and that only men have that.
This is borne out in her discussion, in Le Bonheur Primitif, of how an individual's need for glory puts a stop to a well functioning, happy community of men and women. And a key factor in this happiness is marital union:
For man's happiness, and for natural law, the finest institution was the respect they felt for the sacred ties that united spouses; two beings were only bound together according to their reciprocal feelings.
But when the social cohesion is broken, marriage is no longer the key to happiness, quite the contrary:
Marriage is the tomb of trust and love. A married woman can, with impunity, give bastards to her husband and a fortune that is not theirs. The unmarried woman only has the feeblest rights; ancient and inhuman laws forbid her the right to the name or wealth of the father of her children and no new laws have been devised to address this matter.
This is where I live blog about my new book project, an intellectual biography of three French Revolutionary women philosophers.