Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today we’re going to talk about a document from the 18th Century called the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, by Olympe de Gouges. This declaration is considered an essential text in the study of human rights, but most people I know have never heard of it.
An 18th Century declaration most people certainly have heard of is the United States’ Declaration of Independence, written of course in 1776. In France, their landmark announcement of human rights was called “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen,” and it was written in 1789.
Both of these declarations made important steps forward toward a more inclusive democracy… but both declarations contained glaring omissions. In both countries, white, male land-owners continued to enslave and exploit their fellow human beings, and astonishingly, these declarations of human rights made no mention of this obscene violation of the values of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” or “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” Further, flying in the face of their noble assertions of human rights, both documents completely excluded women.
France, there really was a woman who wrote a sequel - a rebuke and a correction - to her country’s declaration. Her response to the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen,” was “The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen,” and that’s the text we’re going to discuss today.
But first, let me introduce my reading partner for today’s episode, Lindsay Allebest. Hi, Lindsay!
Lindsay, can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what makes you you?
I’m Lindsay, and I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and still consider that home. I love California, my beautiful cat Minerva, and singing whenever I can. I’m now a junior at Boston University studying History! My main area of interest is Early Modern Europe, and I especially love social history, which basically focuses on the lived experiences of people in the past within their social structures. I also love studying Spanish language literature and Classics! Most of what I know about the French Revolution and the document we’re studying today comes from an amazing History class I took at BU during my freshman year.
Ok, to get us started, I am going to introduce us to Olympe de Gouges - and I should mention how this is spelled so listeners can make sense of how it sounds - it’s Olympe, like Mount Olympus, and Gouges), and please correct me if I get anything wrong… and then you can acquaint us with the circumstances in which she wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Women. Sound good?
Ok, so… Olympe de Gouges was born Marie Gouze (that’s spelled Gouze) in southwest France in 1748. Her family was middle class (she was the daughter of a baker, or possibly the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman. She claimed she was, but some people think she made it up.). We know that she had some education in her youth, because she was a great writer, but she was married against her will at age 16 to one of her father’s business associates. The following year, so when she was 17, Marie Gouze gave birth to her only child (a son), and her husband died. Four years later in 1770, she moved to Paris and became involved in some of the intellectual salons in the city. Rather than being known as her late husband’s widow, Marie renamed herself, taking on her mother’s middle name, Olympe, and changing the spelling of her father’s surname. The salons she visited introduced her to well-known writers and politicians at the time. She also began a relationship with a wealthy businessman who supported her financially, but never married again and actively rejected the institution of marriage. While in Paris, de Gouges started a theater company and began writing her own plays. These plays dealt with political issues such as the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and class inequality in France. She was a target for harassment and criticism in Paris because of her radical opinions, but also simply because she was a female playwright.. She was violently opposed to French colonization and slavery - she wrote works called Réflexions sur les hommes nègres (Reflections on Black men) and l'Esclavage des Noirs (The slavery of Black people) - and those works attracted fierce opposition.
When the French Revolution began, De Gouges supported it. She was a strong advocate for economic and social change, especially regarding the abolition of slavery and women’s rights. However, she supported the idea of reforming the monarchy rather than abolishing it, whereas the more radical groups wanted to execute King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, which of course they eventually did in 1793.
In order to understand the text that we are going to discuss today, de Gouge’s Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen, we need to understand the document de Gouges was responding to, which was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. And in order to understand the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, we have to understand the basics of what the French Revolution was and why it happened.
The French Revolution began largely as a consequence of an economic crisis and huge socioeconomic inequality. For hundreds of years, French society had been structured into a social hierarchy system that they called “The Three Estates.” The Three Estates system divided France’s population into three social groups: at the top was the Clergy, then the next one down was the Nobility, and at the bottom was the Third Estate, which included every other person in France. 96% of the total population were members of the Third Estate, and 80% of the Third Estate were peasants. So a huge percentage of the population was in poverty, and this poverty kept getting worse because of France’s war debt, and inefficient farming, and huge waves of inflation.
So after decades of this terrible situation, King Louis XVI (who had a reputation for being weak and petty) finally called a meeting of the Estates General in 1789, which essentially meant that representative members of each Estate were brought to Versailles for a meeting. If you’ve ever studied the French Revolution before, you might remember the Jacobin lawyer-turned-dictator Maximilien Robespierre, who was at the meeting.
For several weeks at the Estates General meeting, representatives of the Third Estate—which, remember, was the majority of France’s population, most of whom were peasants—had to fight to be included in the discussions and voting. Finally, after about a month of tension, the Third Estate forcefully took over the proceedings and declared itself the National Assembly—the group in charge of France, basically. This was the first step towards the people delegitimizing the monarchy and seizing power for themselves, and it was very effective. In response, the King locked the National Assembly out of the meeting, so the representatives who were rebelling against the King got together on a Handball Court, and wrote the famous Tennis Court Oath (which is clearly misnamed as they were on a handball court), which swore that the National Assembly would not disband until they wrote a Constitution for France.
After this, rumors started flying around France that the King was going to crush the Third Estate and establish martial law to calm the country down. This led to the storming of the Bastille, which you’ve probably heard about, and basically mass chaos ensued. There were 2 weeks of mob violence, beginning with the decapitation and head-piking of Governor de Launay.
So the reason for setting the stage with this much detail is just to illustrate that this was a country that was questioning its foundations. The people were FURIOUS about the structural inequalities in their society, and they wanted to tear it down and build something new and better in its place. Some of the changes they wanted to make were:
- Abolishing feudalism
- Abolishing tithes to the Church (and reducing or eliminating the influence of the church in general)
- Establishing a meritocracy, where every citizen is eligible for every job - you could determine what you wanted to do with your life
So to enshrine these principles in a document, much like America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution, Lafayette and some other men wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which was published in 1789 as the Preamble to the Constitution that came two years later.
- It asserted that men have natural rights - which was a new concept that was developed during the Enlightenment.
- That all men’s natural rights were equal to each other - basically you don’t have more natural rights because your dad is a duke or a count. ALL men are created equal.
[Source: University of Chicago Readings in Western Civilization, Volume 7: The Old Regime and the French Revolution (Volume 7) 1st Edition
This document is considered hugely important in the history of human rights. And it was a huge step forward for the oppressed citizens of France who were male and white. But it didn’t acknowledge enslaved people AT ALL. It didn’t mention women AT ALL. I can just imagine how infuriating that would have been. I would have thought “REALLY???” You are going to all the trouble of dismantling the power structure in order to a new, more just society from scratch, and you COMPLETELY FORGOT ABOUT US????” I would be so mad. For the record, I am mad.
And that’s how Olympe de Gouges felt, so she took the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and she wrote a new document, called the Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen. And she took every article of the original Declaration and applied it to men and women, point for point.
She published it in 1791, and immediately after she published it, many of the radicals of the Revolution accused her of treason. The Jacobins (led by Robespierre) called her a “Royalist,” which wasn’t entirely untrue, since de Gouges did support the monarchy - she wanted these principles of equality to be guaranteed by a constitutional monarchy - and she had dedicated the Declaration to Marie Antoinette, whom everyone loathed. De Gouges was tried for treason, and was sentenced to execution by the guillotine.
Her crime, according to the newspaper at the time, was that she had "forgotten the virtues which belonged to her sex." She was beheaded on November 3, 1793, at the age of 45.
That is so tragic. Obviously during the Terror they were executing tons of men too, and that was like suicide for her to dedicate it to Marie Antoinette. But I think it’s really telling that part of her perceived crimes were that “She had forgotten the virtues that belonged to her sex.” So how would those virtues be defined back then?
Submissive, Christian, hard-working at home, chaste, being quiet, etc.
- women conceived on average every 20 months
- but: women had a higher literacy rate than men (20% compared to 10%)
Ok, so let’s dive into a few of the articles of the Declaration that we think are especially interesting or relevant. Lindsay, do you want to read the first one?
Ok, I thought that Article I and Article IV were similar to each other, and they’re really short so I’m going to read them both.
Woman is born free and remains equal to man in her rights. Social distinctions may only be based on common utility.
Liberty and justice consist in restoring to others all that belongs to them; hence, the only limits to the exercise of the natural rights of woman are found in the perpetual male tyranny opposed to them; these limits must be reformed according to the laws of nature and reason.
In Article I she says woman is “born free and remains equal to man in her rights” = “natural rights.” And in Article IV she references “natural rights.”
So, I happen to agree with her. (Look at babies next to each other - they deserve equal protection under the law, not to be discriminated against based on a characteristic that they can’t change). During the Enlightenment, men came to see themselves as having natural rights that they are born with.
Playing devil’s advocate, how would someone argue with this? They would say “who gives that baby its rights?
In our Declaration of Independence it says “they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights… life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.” The Creator that endowed men with those rights is the Judeo-Christian God, the God of the Bible. In one Biblical account Eve is created in the image of God, so she might have the same individual value as Adam does, “free and equal to man in rights,” and having the same nature as he does. But in the other Biblical account she is created from Adam’s rib, and named by Adam. In both cases, she is made subject to Adam after she disobeys God and causes the Fall of Man. They don’t have the same “natural rights.” This bases “social distinctions” on God’s law that women be subjugated.
They might say de Gouges’ attempt to apply the Enlightenment logic of “natural rights” to a woman is futile because God created this system, not human beings.
I mention this because I have heard men in my actual life say “yes, I can see how that must be frustrating to you as a woman, but God said it should be this way. And who am I to question God?”
So my question is, at this time was French thought still grounded in the Bible the way American thought was at the time of the Declaration of Independence? Or had France adopted a secular worldview that wasn’t rooted in the Bible?
Lindsay: France was deliberately divorcing itself from the Catholic Church. In the Old Regime, under the Three Estates system, the Catholic Church had a ton of power, and the Pope even ranked above the King, who they believed had a “Divine Right of Kings.” So the entire system was very much rooted in Catholic beliefs. At this point in the Revolution, people were already pushing back hard against the Church, but during the Reign of Terror Robespierre and the Jacobins took it to the EXTREME and started tearing down French cathedrals and converting them into “Temples of Reason.” But yes, even in 1791 the French people were tired of the Catholic Church.
What stood out to you from these articles?
“Social distinctions may only be based on common utility.” This was in reaction to the prior system, which was like a caste system of clergy, nobility and peasants. This is a HUGE step forward, based on that Enlightenment principle of natural rights. But who defines a person’s “common utility?” It could be argued that the labor of enslaved people, both men and women, was needed for “common utility.” So the social distinction that restricted their freedoms was based on society’s common good. Or it could be argued that the reproductive capacity of women - both white and black, free and enslaved - was needed in order to keep populating, and to rear children. So people could argue the common utility of keeping those groups in subjugation.
This is based on Plato and Aristotle
Yes, I have literally heard this argument by a good friend of mine, a really smart man, a really good man, within the past year. He says that if women are not taught that they have to stay home and have babies and raise children, they won’t do it, and the human species will die out. It’s like the Handmaid’s Tale, where women’s “common utility” is their reproductive capacity. They’re like a womb with legs.
And continuing Plato and Aristotle… later Darwin, who didn’t appeal to the Bible for definitions of the sexes, thought women were naturally inferior.
So… even an appeal to “natural rights” can be problematic and hard to get people on board that that means everyone has the same rights to determine their own lives
Okay, so de Gouges reasons that little girls and little boys are born with equal dignity and equal rights to self-determination. It is men who have exercised tyranny over women, and she says we need to make reform using the laws of “nature and reason.” But that seems problematic because people argue all the time that it’s “natural” and “reasonable” to have hierarchies, and specifically the Bible and the ancient Greeks both argue that men should rule over women. So how do we argue with that?
One thing I thought of: the philosophical thought experiment, the “Veil of Ignorance,” which is a method of determining the morality of any given policy or practice. When considering whether or not to implement a policy or practice, imagine all the implications for each member of society, but that you don’t know which member of society you will be. Would you determine that enslaving people from Africa is a good idea if you thought you yourself could be born in Africa, and thus be kidnapped and enslaved? Would you outlaw same-sex marriage if you yourself were gay? Would you defend the law that women couldn’t own land if you yourself were a woman?