The Declaration of the Rights of Women by Olympe de Gouges
Translated by Allayne Pullen in association with First Edition Translations Ltd

Observant readers of the Ramblings may have noticed a certain tendency over the last few months towards France, Paris and the various revolutions that have taken place (stirred in with an interest in iconoclasm!) I’ve read (and amassed on the TBR) a number of books on the subject, and all of this is so interesting; however, one thing I’ve been looking for and struggling to find amongst all the revolutionary hyperbole is the female voice. Women were a huge part of the French Revolution: from Théroigne de Méricourt who shamed the men into storming the Tuileries Palace* to the tricoteuses, knitting away beside the guillotine (all that blood really must have messed up their work…) Anyway, as I dug into the subject, looking for what women had written during the period, one name kept coming up – Olympe de Gouges.

The Declaration, atop some heavyweight men…. 🙂

A little more digging revealed a woman with a fascinating history: born in 1748, she started her career as a playwright; however, as France edged closer to revolution, Olympe became more involved in politics, initially taking a strong stance against the slave trade in the French colonies. This mutated in pamphleteering and once the Revolution took hold, she wrote a pioneering feminist work, Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791) challenging male authority and the inequality of the sexes. However, the Revolution was never straightforward and because of her association with a Royalist party she was eventually guillotined in 1793. She had argued that there should be equality for both sexes in every respect and France’s method of execution was to be no exception.

Naturally, I was keen to read Gouges’ work, and I was really happy to find that Ilex Press were bringing out a new edition, and the publisher has been kind enough to provide a review copy. And what a fascinating and inspirational little book it is! The “Declaration” itself is relatively short, so they’ve cleverly decided to enhance it with the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against women (which drew on much of Gouges’ work for its substance) as well as a marvellous series of illustrations and some stirring quotes from writers as wide-ranging as the well-known Woolf, Beauvoir, Shakespeare and Rimbaud, plus a number of names (often French) new to me. These really do bring the book alive and it makes potent reading.

Yes, indeed, gentlemen – you who are such authorities on the internal workings of the soul and the psyche – reading does give women ideas. What sacrilege! How then are we to stem the flow of pleasure that reading brings to women?
Laure Adler and Stefan Bollman
Les femmes qui lisent sont dangereuses (2006)

I’m old enough to remember second wave feminism in the late 1970s – consciousness-raising groups, Spare Rib and Reclaim the Night marches – and the demands we were making then don’t seem that dissimilar to the ones Gouges made or those in the UN resolution. And although we are supposed to have made great strides forward in equality of pay and work conditions and the like, the recent news stories about the gender pay divide as well as the #metoo phenomenon tend to make me think we have not. When a book like Mary Beard’s “Women and Power” strikes such a chord, it’s certain that we are still far away from equality.

Only a man could launch the idea that the happiness of a woman should consist in serving and pleasing a man.
Margaret Fuller
Women in the Nineteenth Century (1843)

Olympe de Gouges’ eventual fate was tragic, particularly bearing in mind her views and her intelligence. 1793 saw the Reign of Terror and a spate of executions spreading across France, and it’s timely to be reminded that so often a revolution is man-made and for men only – as Wikipedia points out, “1793 has been described as a watershed for the construction of women’s place in revolutionary France, and the deconstruction of the Girondin’s Marianne. That year a number of women with a public role in politics were executed, including Madame Roland and Marie-Antoinette. The new Républicaine was the republican mother that nurtured the new citizen. While politically active women were executed the Convention banned all women’s political associations.” It’s a tendency that’s repeated over and over again; after the Russian Revolution, the women who supported it struggled to get their needs and views taken into account; and in the so-called liberated 1960s counter-culture, the women were meant to take a subservient Earth-mother role (which probably sparked much of the second wave of feminism). However, this was particularly galling in the case of the French Revolution, a conflict in which women were very much to the fore.

Colette’s thinking is guided neither by the imperative of the reproduction of the series, nor by the imperative of social stability assured by the couple and the assurances they make. The only constant is her concern with the freeing of the subject ‘woman’, who wishes to attain sensual freedom in order to maintain her curiosity and her creativity, not as part of a couple but in a plurality of connections.
Julia Kristeva
Colette, un génie féminin (2007)

So this book, with its apt subtitled of ‘The original manifesto for justice, equality and freedom’, is a very timely release from Ilex Press: whilst celebrating Gouges and her early declaration of women’s rights, it also acts as an inspirational rallying cry, showing how women (and men!) writers have over the centuries fought against discrimination and inequality. By choosing to enhance Gouges’ words with the extra material, they’ve shown how ground-breaking and yet still relevant her declaration was. The book is so beautifully put together, with its clever and striking original artwork, as well as the eloquent quotations. If you have any interest in feminism, the constant struggles women have had (and are still having) or indeed women’s contributions to the French Revolution, then I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Buy it for your mothers, your sisters, your daughters – and especially your sons, in the hope that it will change a few minds and help change the world…

The Declaration of the Rights of Women: The Original Manifesto for Justice, Equality and Freedom by Olympe de Gouges; published by Ilex Press, ISBN 978-1781575673; hardback; £10

*****

* I picked up this interesting factoid from Professor Richard Clay’s excellent “Tearing Up History” documentary, which I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings (after spending far too long trying to decipher what name he was actually saying…) Théroigne de Méricourt was another complex and interesting woman who aroused much controversy during the revolution, and I may well have to investigate her life further. However, I didn’t want to just reiterate Professor Clay’s rather dramatic sweeping statement without checking, and I haven’t actually been able to substantiate her part in the events of 10th August 1792 (apart from a statement that apparently she was in the thick of the fighting) – but then I’m not an academic and I only have a limited number of books on the subject as you can see from the picture above! So – it sounds good but I can’t actually verify it…. 😉

And as an aside from my aside above, I just noticed that “Tearing up History” is having another re-run on BBC4 on 14th May – so you have no excuse not to have a watch either live or on the iPlayer – fascinating documentary! 🙂

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