Olympe de Gouges: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In the 18th century, Olympe de Gouges spoke out about issues that no one else wanted to talk about. In this lesson, we'll go over the life and works of Olympe de Gouges, and see how far she was willing to go to make her voice heard.

Who was Olympe de Gouges?

You may not have heard of Olympe de Gouges or even know how to pronounce her name (O-limp day Good), but she was an inspirational figure who was ahead of her time. The 18th century social reformer and writer was one of France's first major advocates for the rights of women and other underrepresented groups. Overall, she was a complex figure who turned out to be just as impressive as her name.

Olympe de Gouges

Early Life

Olympe de Gouges was born Marie Gouze in 1748 in Montauban, France. Her mother was a member of something akin to an 18th-century middle class, and she was likely the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman named Jean-Jacques Lefranc. Being illegitimate, Marie was never recognized by her father or granted any of his wealth or power. She grew up with her mother, and she married at the age of 16 before having a son. Unfortunately, her husband died not long after. Marie vowed to never marry again, changed her name to Olympe de Gouges, and moved to Paris to start a new life.

Life in Paris

In Paris, Olympe de Gouges quickly became involved in politics. She was a very skilled writer, and she penned plays, political pamphlets, and other publications advocating for social and political change. As a woman, and an illegitimate child, she had a pretty good idea of what it meant to be marginalized from mainstream society. So she started speaking out for these populations. In her publications, de Gouges advocated for the rights of orphaned children, divorced and widowed mothers, and black slaves, and she advocated for making both divorce and maternity hospitals more accessible to women.

De Gouges emerged as an advocate for human rights

Perhaps her most famous publication, however, was the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen. De Gouges wrote this in 1791, in the middle of the violent French Revolution, right after the revolutionaries had published their demands for fair rights to all male citizens called the 'Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen'.

De Gouges argued that the full rights of citizenship should be granted to French women as well, and added that illegitimate children should be legally recognized in terms of inheritance and rights. Several of her most famous quotes revolved around this topic. Here are a few of the ones that have been cited frequently over the last few centuries:

'Woman is born free and lives equal to man in her rights.'

'Male and female citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, must be equally admitted to all honors, positions, and public employment according to their capacity and without other distinctions besides those of their virtues and talents.'

'Women, rouse yourselves! The tocsin of reason resounds through the whole universe; recognize your rights.'

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