The Rights of Women

Originally published in A Little Bit Tart, A Little Bit Sweet on Mar 2015

In December of 1789, an abolitionist play, The Slavery of the Blacks, or the Lucky Shipwreck by Madame Olympe de Gouges, debuted on stage in the tumult of Revolutionary Paris.  After only three performances, the curtain fell on the play for the last time.  Incendiary in its call for slave emancipation, the play infuriated colonial plantation owners, whose lucrative sugar industry in the West Indies (today’s Caribbean) depended entirely on the labor of slaves.  The play went too far in criticizing their livelihood, and encouraged slaves to rise up violently against their owners, they complained.  Who was a woman to demand change to a system she could not possibly understand?

Who was Olympe de Gouges?

Born Marie Gouze in 1748, she was a playwright, pamphleteer, and outspoken warrior in the battle for the rights of all humans, which raged across the world at this time.  A citizen of the new France, which had thrown off its absolute monarchy to become a constitutional monarchy ruled by a representative governing body, Marie was not born into the aristocracy.  Rumor had it, though, that she was the illegitimate — unrecognized — daughter of a titled nobleman, and some historians attribute her impassioned defense of people without rights to this early rejection in her life.

Whatever the root of her convictions about universal human rights may have been, she was a product of her era, an outspoken and courageous advocate for slaves, mulattos and women.

For centuries, the aristocrats and clergy of France had beggarded the vast majority of the population through taxes and a system of labor that amounted to serfdom.  Stirred up by the writings of poets, politicians and playwrights of the Enlightenment and their calls for equal rights for all citizens, the people of France finally rose up en masse, and in 1789 plunged their nation into a Revolution that was to profoundly change not only France but all of Europe and the colonial world.

In May of 1789, leaders of the Revolution formed the National Constituent Assembly as the representative governing body of the kingdom.  On August 26, 1789, the men of the assembly passed The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a surprisingly short document including seventeen statements that spelled out “the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man” for the nation, declaring the rule of law — rather than the random will of men in power — to be the fundamental basis for society.  (Here’s a good version of that declaration.)

Compiled in an atmosphere of heady triumph combined with uncertainty as to how far to go with certain claims of liberty, many provisions of the Declaration discussed in the Assembly were not included in the final version; some were simply too controversial to survive the early days of the Revolution.  By and large, though, France’s new leaders embraced the Declaration as a true and just guide for social, political and legal behavior henceforth.

But not every citizen of the new nation thought the Declaration sufficed.  In 1790 a call was made in the National Assembly to extend civil rights to women.  Support for it was light, and it met with failure.  Following this blow, in September of 1791, playwright Olympe de Gouges published The Declaration of the Rights of Woman.  (Read it here.)  This declaration mimicked the National Assembly’s text of seventeen provisions, each provision altered only slightly in form but significantly in essence.

For example, #4 of the declaration ratified by the National Assembly states:

“Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights.  These limits can only be determined by law.”

Number #4 of The Declaration of the Rights of Woman states instead:

“Liberty and justice consist in restoring all that belongs to another; hence the exercise of the natural rights of woman has no other limits than those that the perpetual tyranny of man opposes to them; these limits must be reformed according to the laws of nature and reason.”

Olympe de Gouges’s Declaration included a postscript directly addressed to the people it intended to emancipate from virtual slavery.  “Women, wake up,” it demanded.

“The tocsin of reason sounds throughout the universe; recognize your rights.  The powerful empire of nature is no longer surrounded by prejudice, fanaticism, superstition, and lies.  The torch of truth has dispersed all the clouds of folly and usurpation.  Enslaved man has multiplied his force and needs yours to break his chains.  Having become free, he has become unjust toward his companion.  Oh women!  Women, when will you cease to be blind?”

The postscript spelled out the tragic circumstances that women often found themselves in — abandonment, poverty, social ostracism — because of men who held all legal rights and social power over them, and it compared women’s powerlessness to the situation of slaves.  Among other things, it demanded that a married woman and man hold property in common, and even included a sample marriage contract.

The Declaration of the Rights of Woman was a heady call to true equality of the sexes.  In feminist circles its author was praised as a true revolutionary, demanding that France’s new freedoms not only be embodied in white males but in black, mulatto and women’s bodies too.  If rights were fundamentally human, natural, then they must apply to all people, not only to white men.
Such demands didn’t go over well with everybody.  Leaders of the Revolution didn’t all believe in the fundamental equality of women; for centuries philosophers and scientists had insisted that female humans didn’t actually possess the faculty of reason, a quality that was essential to operate as a full citizen in a society based on law.  Without reason, how could they make decisions about important things like property?  And how on earth were they expected to vote appropriately?  Women’s minds weren’t to be trusted with the functions of government that a responsible citizen must engage in.

On the 22nd of September, 1792, leaders of the Revolution declared the monarchy obsolete and established the Republic of France.  King Louis was tried and condemned for treason while two competing factions within the republican government battled for power in the new government.  In the midst of this battle, the Reign of Terror commenced, during which tens of thousands of aristocrats and anybody else suspected of plotting against the revolution were imprisoned and then executed.  Aligned firmly on one side of the conflict, Olympe de Gouges swiftly fell victim to the Terror: after three months of imprisonment, on November 2, 1793, she died upon the guillotine.  Accused of spreading counterrevolutionary ideas and denounced as an “unnatural” woman, she represented both the greatest ideals of the Revolution and the most constricting self-contradictions and injustices of her age.

A year later, in 1794, the National Assembly abolished slavery across France’s empire.  It would be reinstated under Napoleon in 1802.  But by then abolitionists had established sufficient grounds for victory in both the language of human rights and in successful slave uprisings (including the Haitian Revolution), that universal slave emancipation did eventually become a reality. In 1807, England — which had harbored France’s exiled aristocrats during the Revolution — outlawed the slave trade, and then in 1833 abolished slavery entirely.  In the following decades, other nations followed suit, including France once again in 1848.

Despite the work of women like Olympe de Gouges, the rights of women were much slower to find supporters among the men who ruled France and neighboring countries.  “Woman is born free and remains equal to man in rights,” stated The Declaration of the Rights of Woman.  Given the tenor of our own society’s current debates over feminism, sexism, job equality, the legal rights of women in domestic abuse cases, and rape culture—to name only a few points of conflict—it seems that we still have a long way to go to realize Marie Gouze’s dream.


I penned this piece immediately after writing The Earl, and it is based on some of the awesome and inspiring history of women’s rights activism I learned while researching to write Lady Justice.

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