Olympe de Gouges



Historical Amnesia and Progression

The historic opening of academia in Europe, to a large extent driven by social movements, making attendance possible for the categories of women, people of enslaved and manual labouring descent, other categorized groups, and dissenters/non-compliers, will continue to revolutionize knowledge and research by transforming traditionally conceived notions of epistemology, methodology, and the history of science. Still, there are far-reaching perspectives that remain to be generally embraced as urgent areas for research. In this article, such an issue is highlighted by focusing texts by a historical person who was defamed and convicted because she explored topics in her time that were subjected to formal or informal censorship; women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, and the human – non-human relationship. I find it fruitful to use the concept ‘category of women’ and/or ‘female category’ to emphasize that the term woman has existed and exists as a legal category maintained by influential societal forces and institutions. Of specific relevance to my topic are the circumstances during the French Revolution when the binary and hierarchical classifying of people according to sex and gender was continuously utilized to formally exclude people in the female category from active citizenship and political organizing.

‘But the conservative avoided her and her book as social plagues. Many people would not even look at what she had written. Satisfied with the old-fashioned way of treating the subjects therein discussed, they would not run the risk of finding out that they were wrong’, said Elizabeth Robins Pennell in her book Life of Mary Wollstonecraft (Robins Pennell 1884: 173). Robins Pennell was referring to Mary Wollstonecraft, but the same could be said about Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793). Olympe de Gouges wrote The Rights of Woman (Les droits de la femme) containing the Declaration on Woman and the Female Citizen (Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne) in 1791 and Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman 1792. Perhaps the two political philosophers met in Paris during the French revolution: Wollstonecraft on a long visit from England, and de Gouges as a playwright journeying from one social class to another in the big city. Or did they know of each other from hearsay? The way they had heard about the North American Attakullakulla’s questioning of ‘the imbalance, disorder, and violence of white colonial society’ when he negotiated with the British: ‘Where are your women?’ (Moore, Brooks and Wigginton 2012: 179). And, perhaps, in the way the two literary activists embraced the universal humanist declaration stated by the chairperson of the Cherokee Women’s Council Nanye’his, echoing across the revolutionary Atlantic world, to the white men in 1781: ‘[W]e are your mothers. This peace must last forever. Let your women’s sons be ours, and let our sons be yours. Let your women hear our words’ (Moore, Brooks and Wigginton 2012: 180). And, perhaps, in the way de Gouges had read Hannah More’s long anti-racist poem Slavery from 1788:’ Does then th’ immortal principle within / Change with the casual colour of a skin?’ (Moore, Brooks and Wigginton 2012: 213).

Which were the possible contacts and philosophical trajectories of the European proto-feminists Wollstonecraft and de Gouges? Besides Lisa L. Moore’s, Joanna Brooks’ and Caroline Wigginton’s anthology Transatlantic Feminisms in the Age of Revolutions, not many have employed such a perspective. And, if one can speak of a body of Swedish Wollstonecraft-research, one can hardly do so in respect to de Gouges. The Swedish Library catalogue Libris’ list of titles gives a hint of the difference in attention: 8 titles in Swedish (of in total 49) for de Gouges, and 119 titles in Swedish (of in total 970) for Wollstonecraft. That is, almost fifteen times more interest for Wollstonecraft compared with de Gouges. What does this difference imply? That English nowadays is the academic language of priority and that the French language (and the Swedish language) is not? That most scholars prefer to use sources and research questions that can be reflected upon and published in English, thereby leading to increased chances of reaching more readers and getting more citations? Perhaps, but there are also other answers.

Probably the earliest text in Swedish about Olympe de Gouges (by a women’s rights champion) was written by Ellen Hagen (Hagen 1925). De Gouges’ Declaration on the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen has been translated into the Swedish language and published a few times, starting in the 1970s (Schimanski 1972; Ambjörnsson and Eriksson 1998; Österholm 2006). In our time, Kim West has translated the foreword to de Gouges’ play L’esclavage des nègres (Gouges 1789/2012) and I have translated a paragraph often left out both in Swedish and in English translations of de Gouges’ Rights of Woman (Gålmark 2013: 19; 2016: 17−18). De Gouges’ other texts, including her dramas, have not been published in Swedish. In recent years, magazine articles have been published about Olympe de Gouges in Swedish (Jarlsbo 2007; Kåreland 2010; Gålmark 2016b), however, in recently published Swedish collections of historical political key texts on women’s gender and sexuality, de Gouges’ Rights of Woman is missing.

A contributing factor to why de Gouges is not included in the Swedish canon of European gender history today may be that de Gouges’ texts do not suggest a given reading. The political publications – essays, pamphlets, posters – are both personal and political, inserted with short and amusing scenes taken from de Gouges’ own life. The texts appear naturalistic, freely created, full of temperament. The richness of associations, suggestions, didactic, and polemical points makes them entertaining – and difficult to interpret. However, there is a unique Olympe de Gouges-tone and a ditto style. Janie Venpée suggests that de Gouges’ political writing may be read as a theatre script of the author’s life drama (Venpée 1999). In Olympe de Gouges’ pamphlets, she is the hyper-talented and engaged author acting in a world in flames. In her Declaration… she is the expert of state with the constitution in her hand, a brilliant paraphrase of the Declaration of Human Rights from 1789, which in 1791, and to de Gouges’ disappointment, did not include people in the category of woman, people in the slave category, nor did it include men with a low income, male servants, or men under the age of 25.

Olympe de Gouges’ political texts oscillate; sometimes they are progressive, sometimes conservative; often they are marked by her autodidactic education of classical texts. Her work pushes, slows down, and evolves in relation to the revolutionary process. To read a proposition by Olympe de Gouges is to wait for the next text and the next event. It is telling that her Rights of Woman contains a post-script written from the contemporary cab (a horse-drawn carriage). In opposition to the rules of patriarchal society she moves around freely; in various rooms, and categories, by turns profound, by turns polemic and ironic; between the theatre and the home; between the city and the countryside; between dramas and pamphlets; marginalization and fame; slander and recognition. Between her ‘many small mistakes’ and her subsequent revisions (Gålmark 2016a: 9).

The French language was de Gouges’ second language after Occitan (a distinctive Southern French language group) and de Gouges was basically self-taught. Above all, de Gouges was enfant naturel, a child of nature, only in part born within marriage (according to de Gouges: not acknowledged by her father) and as such legally recognized during the French revolution due to activist politics from, among others, de Gouges herself. Olympe de Gouges’ fearless political ambition was not a coincidence; she held the distinct opinion that the voice of a human being is not to be corrected. Wrongs and mistakes belong to human nature – and nature is wonderful. The human being, as the most diverse and varied in colour, is the most beautiful animal; however, when the “human” is perceived to be “a white man”, the human is transformed into ‘the most stupid animal’, in French, ’Le plus sot animal’ (Gålmark 2013: 19).

Here is where we get to the heart of the matter: Olympe de Gouges’ use of nature as an inspiration for a philosophy and politics of equality: Nature and animals do not suggest divergent rights for men and women; nature does not suggest slavery of human beings; nature is richer and more diverse; and, furthermore, it is in general impossible to distinguish the sex of an animal only by looking at the exterior form. De Gouges points to the doubtfulness in using simple arguments about animals and nature in disputes over human relations; however, she does not hesitate in her over-arching view: Nature shudders before slavery of all sorts. In relation to the wealthy colonizers of her time, de Gouges appears fearless in her political philosophy. She picks holes in the arguments of the slave owners in the assemblies of politics, in cultural forums, in the homes, on the ships, or on the plantations on other continents, proclaiming that the reason for the existence of slavery, is not found in Nature, but in the economic interests of the colonizers. Prior to the outbreak of the revolution, Olympe de Gouges is the only person in the female category who has the courage to accuse plutocrats and colonists of their doings; most likely she is the first writer to use the word capitalist (Gålmark 2016a: 111).

Olympe de Gouges declares: ’I am an unparalleled animal. I am neither man nor woman, I have the characteristics of both vanity and courage’ (Gålmark 2013: 21). With just a few sentences, de Gouges touches upon later times’ humanist discussions about the theory of evolution, for instance Edith Södergran’s stanza in ‘Vierge moderne’ (Hästbacka, Johansson and Johansson 2016), and Jacques Derrida’s ‘L’animal que donc je suis’ (Derrida and Mallet 2008). Her paragraph recognizes, affirms, and refuses the categories. De Gouges was keen on emphasizing her affiliation to the female category, declaring: ‘it is a woman who poses the question’ (Cole 2011: Appendix 5); however, she also expressed opposition to what we today would call a cis-normative gender perception (a socially constructed normal female body), and a critique of the, even today, prevailing making invisible of mankind’s residence in Metazoa (the whole crowd).

To interfere with the binary categories of gender order, and to question racism and the excluding human definitions, is provocative also in our time. In translations of Olympe de Gouges’ texts, the paragraphs where she employs the word animal to assert equality are often left out – and many of the readings of her work consider her texts paradoxical. However, if an interpretation of inclusion is opted for, de Gouges’ animal- and nature discourse becomes logical and comprehensible. Indeed, with an animal-embracing interpretation, based in a resistance to the ancient ideal being/citizen as equal to the exterior form of a white able-bodied privileged male human (anthro-androcentrism, Gålmark 2005), the view is strengthened of de Gouges as a consistent justice-aiming and truth-endeavouring author and proto-feminist ahead of her time.

Although Olympe de Gouges’ journey upwards on the class ladder proved successful, it was continuously met with problems. During her most prolific time as an author and playwright de Gouges was subjected to sabotage, slander, and physical attacks. According to Janie Venpée, de Gouges was the only woman (human in the female category) during the revolution who was prosecuted – and sentenced – with reference to the content of her publications (Venpée 1999). The disparagement of Olympe de Gouges continued after her execution. In patriarchally marked depictions of the French revolution, de Gouges was heckled by the most prestigious of French male historians – Bretonne, Michelet, Guillois, the brothers Goncourt – in similar wordings as the male revolutionaries used when de Gouges lived. Predictably, the politically constructed female category was often left out in standard narrations and interpretations of the French revolution, not the least in Swedish. Although the category of women had asserted itself as a revolutionary protagonist, it was perceived as a force that hindered the revolution, and thus became marginalized, or overlooked. And this although the exclusion, in the case of Olympe de Gouges the extinction, took place during the terror laws of the Republic. As we know, the majority of the executed were not aristocrats, but male craftsmen, poor people, women of all social classes, and famous and cherished revolutionaries of a different political leaning than the one of the prevailing regimes.

The misunderstandings of de Gouges became predominant, even though de Gouges’ critique predicted the Republic’s suicide (the violence against their own), and even though de Gouges died without imagining that her literary work could be read as something else than true revolutionary. It was not until over a hundred years later that de Gouges obtained redress as a literary activist, by the feminist and socialist Léopold Lacour’s portrait Trois femmes de la Révolution, les origines du féminisme contemporain. It should be noted that Lacour unfortunately did not manage to appreciate Olympe de Gouges’ literary aesthetics. Lacour mentions possible translations of his book into Swedish and Norwegian; however, the book seems never to have been translated (Lacour 1900). In the Libris-catalogue, a copy of the book from the French edition was received by the Swedish National Library (The Royal Library) over a half century (1956) after the book was published in 1900.

Most likely, the lack of success for Lacour’s book contributed to the, even today, minimal interest in Olympe de Gouges in Swedish. Lacour’s title contains the word feminism, used by Frida Stéenhoff three years later, in Feminismens moral. What had happened if Lacour’s portrait of de Gouges had been widely read in Swedish? Had the debate over the rights of women and the feminist movement progressed earlier if it had been possible to read Stéenhoff in dialogue with Lacour? If the image of the French revolution’s people in the category of woman had appeared more favourably and less burdened with guilt? If it had been known that the French feminist of the 19th century, the labour activist and editor Jeanne Deroin – before Léopold Lacour published his book – asserted the women’s rights heritage of Olympe de Gouges and the French revolution? (Scott 1996: 86; Gordon and Cross 1996: 137–139, 149).

In a radio program in Swedish from 2003 with invited scholars, Mary Wollstonecraft is discussed as the ‘creator of the first feminist manifesto’ (Sveriges Radio 2003). The word manifesto may be defined in various ways; and titles without the word may be perceived as manifestoes, for instance feminist texts by Qasim Amin (1893), He-Yin Zhen (1903), Elsa Laula Renberg (1904) Luisa Capetillo (1911), Mina Loy (1914). Alternatively, feminist texts may contain the word manifesto: Valerie Solana’s Scum Manifesto (1969), Black Women’s Manifesto (1970), Radicalesbian Manifesto (1973), Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (1984), Queer Nation Manifesto (1990), Emi Koyama’s Trans Manifesto (2001), Alison Kafer’s Crip Manifesto for Social Justice (2013/17). However, in the context of the 18th century, yet holding Wollstonecraft in high esteem, for those who have read Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Woman with its evident form of public announcement, political programme or speech, there is little doubt who wrote the first European women’s rights manifesto of that period.

It seems curious that a proto-feminist of animal-defending and anti-racist leanings, for long slandered due to her revolt against the social role for people in the female category, would be perceived as too transformative in relation to the discussions of today. However, the image and preconceived notions of a person’s oeuvre may become so established that they remain so despite facts and accessible primary sources. A name or a movement may lack prestige of association and become affected by conservatism due to earlier investments in research. This is not remarkable; the academic world, as we know, often prefers referring to the already established and researched. To relate to earlier works, and to highlight the not yet accepted, or forgotten, or made invisible, or defamed, ought to give, but does not always give the same prestige as the studying of aspects of the established. Rather, such endeavours may meet obstruction, a circumstance not unfamiliar to gender scholars.

Why, there is reason for asking: How to recognize themes that enter the stage after one’s own ideas have been accepted as subjects of concern? How to evade hindering research questions that have been affected by historical amnesia and are perceived to dislodge established research? And when the patterns of perspectives expand borders for what traditionally is included in the humanities, in gender research, and historical research?(Regarding this matter, Maria Jönsson’s sentences, in Subjekt Södergran 2016: 90, are gratifying and worthy of imitation.) In an article in Tidskrift för genusvetenskap from 2010, Ulrika Dahl speaks of when the perspectives of intersectionality were introduced in Swedish; how a phenomenology of stopping emerged, aiming to conserve prevailing outlooks and power relations (Dahl 2010: 72). Dahl discusses the initial resistance against whiteness-studies; however, the tardiness in relation to new thoughts and transforming perspectives may be regarded as a general problem.

Which is why the lack of interest in other topics and social patterns other than the dominant ought to be acknowledged as a continuously existing phenomenon also in forums where it may be least expected. In contemporary texts in Swedish concerning the topic of future feminisms and feminist terminology, power-critical gender perspectives in relation to the ‘animal’ category are missing. Which are the possibilities for critical questions regarding humanity’s fellow non-human beings, including power-critical analysis of social and political constructed ‘animal’ and ‘nature’ categories in the politics and culture of human relations, historically and today? In what way does the revolutionary process take place for not yet established research questions within the humanities, and within gender research? And the problem I would like to discuss in an ulterior text: How may the process be criticized and changed in a constructive way?

An open-minded approach to feminism will, in my view, continue to push the humanities forward, becoming humane/ities, admitting the human being as queer, converging normality and non-normality into variation and difference. Such an insight will entail an understanding of the human being as the one agent power on planet Earth with the ethical responsibility to give space to every human being to bloom in whatever way s/he* wishes while also acknowledging, taking into consideration, respecting, and giving space to humanity’s fellow non-humans (other beings, and nature).

A wider feminist critique of the standard image of the French revolution would open for new interpretations, new questions and perspectives, and thereby more profound knowledge. A broader interest would also support the development of history as a field of study and education. Olympe de Gouges, and the historically defined women categories with their plethora of voices, discourses, travels, and self-images have for too long been disregarded in teachings both in schools and at universities.



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Published in a shorter version: Gålmark, L., “Historical Amnesia and Progression – the Case of Olympe de Gouges” in Journal of Gender Research 39 (1):  107−114.

Photo: Liberté (1793) by Nanine Vallain

© Arimneste Anima Museum #14