Putting women’s rights on (the) line

When a French revolutionary pamphlet crops up in the news, we take notice.

Just days ago, the British Library announced that it is partnering with Google to digitize 250,000 eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books.  Among the few titles they singled out for mention is a signal work on women’s rights, Olympe de GougesLes droits de la femme of 1791.  Happily, though not surprisingly, this notable pamphlet can also be found here at the Newberry in the French Revolution Collection (FRC) (Case FRC 19262) where it is among 25 works by Gouges that were cataloged last spring.

The digitization project is good news; in creating our catalog records, we include links to free online versions when they are available.  Google Books comes up frequently and will be a familiar resource to most users.  Less well-known, perhaps, but vital to our project are other electronic libraries such as Gallica bibliothèque numérique (of the Biblioteque nationale de France), the HathiTrust Digital Library, and the Münchener DigitalisierungsZentrum Digitale Bibliothek, just to name a few.

But what of that extraordinary feminist pamphlet?

In Les droits de la femme, Olympe de Gouges places women’s inequality squarely in the framework of France’s struggles, linking the fortunes of women with that of the revolutionary project itself.  At its core is the Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne, a point-by-point feminist response to the landmark Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, which conspicuously omits women from its scheme of universal equality.  Following the declaration is a lengthy postlude that proposes a new form of marriage contract, one that makes provisions for divorce and the equal distribution of property among husband, wife, and children (legitimate or not), among other things.

De Gouges was an outspoken human rights activist, essayist, and playwright.  She dedicated this work to Marie Antoinette, who she urges to take up the cause of women’s equality, suggesting that by doing so she might yet salvage her tarnished legacy.  While praising the queen, de Gouges also takes her to task in no uncertain terms for her involvement with émigré counterrevolutionaries and foreign powers.

The pugnacious and radical text ends with a jubilant post-script.  De Gouges stopped the presses to add a note expressing her pure joy at the news that the king had accepted the Assemblée nationale’s constitution.  Her elation and her hope for the future are palpable, though marked with caution: “Providence divine, fais que cette joie publique ne soit pas une fausse illusion!”  The joy was to be short-lived.  Aligned with the Girondins, she was imprisoned in the summer of 1793 as the Jacobins swept into power.  Two weeks after the queen’s execution, de Gouges, too, was sent to the guillotine, her fate echoing Article X of her Déclaration: “La femme a le droit de monter sur l’échafaud; elle doit avoir également celui de monter à la Tribune” (Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she has the same right to mount the rostrum).

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