How the dangerously powerful words of two of history’s original “nasty women,” Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft, were silenced, suppressed, and nearly lost to history.
By Victoria Martínez
On November 3, 1793, Olympe de Gouges became the third woman guillotined during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. The first had been a political assassin. The second had been the Queen. Olympe had been a political writer and activist, and one of the first women to truly get her hands dirty in the fight for equal rights.
The official reason for her execution was sedition, but the real danger she presented was made clear two weeks later when a group of women gathered to protest the dissolution of women’s clubs, and were warned:
“…it is contrary to all the laws of nature for a woman to want to make herself a man.”
“Remember the shameless Olympe de Gouges, who was the first to set up women’s clubs, who abandoned the cares of her household to involve herself in the republic, and whose head fell under the avenging blade of the laws.”
In the final years of the 18th century, that avenging blade came down repeatedly on the women who dared to assume men’s prerogatives. Although Olympe de Gouges was the only one of these women political activists executed for her supposed crimes against the laws of nature, the sentence was carried out on the others in equally devastating ways. By cutting down the “unsexed females” at its vanguard, the entire Amazonian movement was subjugated. It marked the definitive end of an Enlightenment that had only grudgingly allowed women to exist on the fringes.
For the most part, the women of the 400-years-long intellectual and literary debate over women’s social status known as La Querelle des Femmes (The Women’s Quarrel) had conducted themselves in a way that was deemed tolerable by their male opponents. But when the revolutionary ideals of the late 18th century inspired a few audacious women to throw down the gauntlet and boldly assert their free will in both word and deed, they threatened to undermine men’s dominance in a new and frightening way.
By transforming a primarily passive and theoretical debate represented on the female side mainly by respectable women of privilege like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu into an active and tangible crusade for women’s rights, these radical women were seeking to inspire and mobilize women at all levels of society. In taking up causes like the abolition of slavery and equal educational and professional opportunities for all women, they undermined the absolute political authority of men. Finally, in demanding recognition that social ills like prostitution were not caused by women’s inherent weakness and immorality, but rather by their limited opportunities and men’s abuse of power and lack of accountability, they endangered entrenched male privilege.
Since the Querelle had long made the polemical writing of these women acceptable, they were instead attacked and condemned for their unconventional actions, which then provided the excuse to discredit and suppress their words. Olympe de Gouges and her British contemporary, Mary Wollstonecraft, were two of the most prominent casualties of this campaign.
Although both women had been considered acceptable participants in the Enlightenment and Revolutionary debates at one time, it was in daring to put their ideas into action and inspire other women to do the same that they became dangerous. Not only did they break convention in their personal lives and assert that they had the same rights as men, they also sought to hold men to the same levels of accountability for their actions as women. And they were unapologetic about it.
“Women want to amount to something and whatever the effeminate men may say, when courage and energy are required, these men will not be in the lead: the revolution guarantees it and these anecdotes… only show you how much more there is to do to help this wretched sex. You would put this work off… even though women contributed as much as you to the revolution: they were not disdained then, they were admitted to the Citizenry when the walls of the Bastille crumbled. It is on these ruins that I want to go and form a legion of women and show them the path to glory, telling them that men have only left us shameful ways to pursue a living, risking our honour and our vulnerability, while they can pursue great careers that are only open to them.” –Olympe de Gouges, June 1791
Prolific writer, revolutionary, activist, abolitionist; de Gouges was expert at composing such unflinching statements. The author of some 40 plays, 70 political pamphlets, and two novels, everything she wrote for publication was intended as a political argument against discrimination, violence and oppression. An early and ardent supporter of the French Revolution, but disgusted with the horrific violence associated with the Reign of Terror, she regularly wrote in support of equality and against some of France’s most powerful men.
“See the papers of the day, and you will also recognize, senators, that a woman was the first to hold up the charm of independence and the torch of patriotism in the republic. What were you then, Marat, Robespierre, Bourdon? Insects squatting in the sewer of corruption, which you have yet to leave. I was already a great man, when you were still only vile slaves.”
Her actions were as bold and courageous as her writing was radical. She participated in the Estates General, organized women’s marches, suggested a female national guard, and deftly and bravely warded off a multitude of personal and physical attacks. On one occasion, she personally defended an elderly man in front of the legislative assembly and single-handedly secured his freedom. On another, she talked herself out of being ripped to pieces by an angry mob. Although not a royalist, she offered herself as King Louis XVI’s legal defense because she was an opponent of the death penalty and believed everyone deserved a fair trial.
As a great man in woman’s robes, she was a clear and present threat to Robespierre and his fellow “corrupt insects.” But her execution was only the beginning of her punishment and, by extension, the punishment of women like her throughout history. The brutal dismemberment of her contribution to principles of equality and liberty simply because she was a woman who threatened men was – and still is – a travesty. As de Gouges scholar Carol L. Sherman wrote:
“For two-hundred and twenty-five years, a number of historians and critics have willfully misunderstood [Olympe de Gouges]. The facts do not bother them, and they ceaselessly parrot epithets and each other. According to this toxic tradition, she was superficial, immoral, illiterate, uncultured and insane. Her opinions were decried mostly because she was female.”
In Britain, de Gouges’ contemporary, Mary Wollstonecraft suffered a similar fate, though she was spared the literal execution. What little hope there had been during Wollstonecraft’s lifetime that women like her would be able to gain a foothold vanished following her untimely death in September 1797. Barely cold in her grave, she became a warning to women who dared step too far outside the bounds.
“Her conduct in the early part of her life was blameless, if not exemplary; but the latter part of it blemished with actions, which must consign her name to posterity… as one whose example, if followed, would be attended with the most pernicious consequences to society; a female who could brave the opinion of the world in the most delicate point; a philosophical wanton, breaking down the bars intended to restrain licentiousness…”
Wollstonecraft had spent the better part of her writing career arguing against just this type of attitude toward women. If being “a philosophical wanton” meant she was defying society’s ridiculous double standards of sexual behavior and using her intellect to effectively argue points of philosophy with men, then she probably would have agreed wholeheartedly with the epithet.
The publication in 1790 of her political pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, demonstrated that she was a politically and philosophically astute thinker and a passionate and fearless writer. The first critical response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Wollstonecraft’s work was primarily an argument against hereditary privilege and for republicanism. But it was also a fundamentally feminist response to Burke’s inherent and, at times, blatant sexism.
In the latter category, Burke wrote: “…a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman, a woman is but an animal, –and an animal not of the highest order.” Wollstonecraft not only responded directly – “Undoubtedly,” she wrote, “because such homage vitiates them, prevents their endeavouring to obtain solid personal merit” – she also responded masterfully to the underlying sexism:
“…if virtue has any other foundation than worldly utility, you have clearly proved that one half of the human species, at least, have not souls; and that Nature, by making women little, smooth, delicate, fair creatures, never designed that they should exercise their reason to acquire the virtues that produce opposite, if not contradictory, feelings.”
In her feminist treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, first published in January 1792, she encouraged women to be autonomous, stated that women should be educated for professions like medicine and politics, and supported the idea of female enfranchisement. She also wrote masterfully against the patriarchy:
“I love man as my fellow; but his scepter, real, or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man.”
“I may be accused of arrogance; still I must declare what I firmly believe, that all the writers who have written on the subject of female education and manners from Rousseau to Dr. Gregory, have contributed to render women more artificial, weak characters, than they would otherwise have been; and, consequently, more useless members of society. I might have expressed this conviction in a lower key; but I am afraid it would have been the whine of affectation, and not the faithful expression of my feelings, of the clear result, which experience and reflection have led me to draw.”
Up to and immediately following her death, Wollstonecraft’s literary reputation had been surprisingly good, especially considering her subject matter. In general, her literary output had been judged mainly by garden-variety misogyny as opposed to outright hostility. Unlike Olympe de Gouges, whose unconventional personal life and actions were well-known, Mary Wollstonecraft maintained a level of outward-facing social respectability that kept her relatively safe from personal attack. But this thin wall of protection disappeared after her death when her husband, William Godwin, published Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in January 1798.
Ill-advisedly but without bad intentions, he unleashed on the world the knowledge that Wollstonecraft’s personal life had defied convention. In recounting her premarital love affairs, illegitimate child, and two suicide attempts, Godwin unwittingly gave her philosophical antagonists exactly the ammunition they needed to argue against her ideas and anyone who espoused or adopted them. By extension to her “scandalous” personal life, her body of work was labelled dangerous.
Just as Olympe de Gouges had been, Mary Wollstonecraft became a warning to women:
“…the doctrines upon which she has principally insisted are unfriendly to human happiness, and, if practically followed, would injure the sex they were intended to vindicate and protect.”
Attacks like these thrived as a paternalistic “protection” of women against the supposedly deviant members of their own sex became the false flag under which the opponents of equal rights fought. Ruthlessly applied to any woman who stood up and spoke out as Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft had done, they successfully sublimated the movement in its tracks, thus slamming the book closed on the Querelle des Femmes.
The strategy was so effective in overshadowing the literary and social contributions of these women by inventing and perpetuating their “infamy,” that it has echoed down through history, successfully shrouding the feminist messages of these women until relatively recently. Just the fact that we continue to identify first-wave feminism with the later 19th and early 20th century social and political movement shows how effectively the contributions of these earlier women were obscured.
While it is a sad testament to the success of the campaign against them, the fact that their true legacy has never been extinguished is proof that their literary force was – and is – extremely powerful. The continuing relevance of both their message and their vilification as “nasty women” is a potent reminder of why feminism is still an active struggle today.
In the second part of this series, Define Her as Scandalous to Obscure Her Substance, I explore two more of history’s original “nasty women,” Mary Hays and Mary Darby Robinson, and what their treatment can tell us about how society has long consigned outspoken women to infamy or obliteration.
Main image: “The Battle of the Amazons,” circa 1598, by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel (courtesy Jan Brueghel).
 Charlotte Corday, the assassin of Jean-Paul Marat, was executed on July 17, 1793. Queen Marie Antoinette was executed on Oct. 16, 1793. Olympe de Gouges was the only woman executed for political writing during the French Revolution.
 “[Pierre Gaspard] Chaumette: Speech at the General Council of the City Government of Paris Denouncing Women’s Political Activism, November 17, 1793.” The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History. Hunt, Lynn Avery, trans., ed. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1996, 138–39.
 From her brochure, Sera-t-il roi ne le sera-t-il pas? (trans: Will he, or will he not, be king?), published in June 1791. Source: Clarissa Palmer’s excellent and comprehensive website Olympe de Gouges: English Translations of the Original French Texts.
 Part of de Gouges’ December 1792 Correspondance de la cour. Compte moral rendu et dernier mot a mes chers amis… (Court correspondence. A principled report and my last words to my dear friends…), which followed accusations that she was a royalist and illegitimate child of the late King Louis XV.
 Clarissa Palmer’s website Olympe de Gouges, cited in this work, is an excellent online source of information on de Gouges. In print, I recommend Carol L. Sherman’s 2016 book, Olympe de Gouges: Witness to Revolution.
 Sherman, Carol L. Olympe de Gouges: Witness to Revolution. Amazon Digital Services, 2016, 27.
 The London Review and Literary Journal, April 1798, 246.
 Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Men, Reply to Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution. 1790. Reprinted in The Complete Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, 2013.
 Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. 1792. Reprinted in The Complete Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, 2013.
 The Critical Review: Or, Annals of Literature, Vol. XXII, April 1798, 414.