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A successful writer and well-known political activist, Olympe de Gouges (1748–93) was a fairly important figure in 18th-century Parisian intellectual circles. Her personal circumstances were unusual for women of her day: she lived independently for most of her adult life. She was born Marie Gouze in Montauban, in the Occitanie region of southwestern France, to working-class parents. While her acknowledged father was a butcher, Gouges may in fact have been the illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat. In her later life, Gouges advocated passionately for the right of women to openly declare the father of an illegitimate child.
Around the age of 16, she was married to a much older man and soon had a son. Her unhappy marriage lasted only two or three years. Widowed around age 18 or 19, she moved to Paris and began calling herself Olympe de Gouges. She created her new name by taking her mother's middle name and apparently transforming Gouze to Gouges, adding the particle de, which denoted aristocratic roots. During her years in Paris, she was in a relationship with a wealthy man. His financial support likely helped facilitate her life as a writer. However, she consistently refused to marry him.
In her plays, novels, and pamphlets she took on numerous social and political topics. She denounced slavery, capital punishment, the practice of forcing girls to join convents, the double standards applied to women's behavior, the treatment of prisoners, and other issues. She advocated for children, the poor, unwed mothers, and other marginalized groups. She called for the right to divorce, casting it in terms of women's rights and opportunity. A passionate defender of the right to freedom of expression, she published prolifically, even when doing so became dangerous.
Politically engaged and dedicated to her ideals, Gouges was active during the French Revolution, which broke out in 1789. She published tracts and pamphlets and took part in the many debates that arose among the revolutionaries about what new system should replace the ancien régime, the old order in which the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the Catholic Church held power. When revolutionaries formed the National Assembly—a new legislative body—in 1789, Gouges and other women argued that women should be able to participate. However, this proposal was rejected, outraging Gouges. When the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), a document intended to proclaim and protect essential human rights and liberties, Gouges responded with her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen.
As the revolution progressed, tensions between different revolutionary factions increased. Gouges sided with the Girondins, a more moderate group. The Girondins were divided, or undecided, in their views toward the monarchy. In the earlier stages of the revolution, some groups supported the idea of a constitutional monarchy (a form of government in which a monarch rules according to the terms of a constitution and shares power with a legislative body). Others insisted that the monarchy must be done away with. The Girondins eventually declined to participate in the 1792 storming of the Tuileries Palace, which overthrew the monarchy. Many Girondins, including Gouges, opposed the execution of the king, Louis XVI (1754–93), which occurred in January 1793. Although she wished to see many social and political reforms, Gouges opposed the wholesale abolition of the monarchy and appears to have favored the idea of a new constitutional monarchy. Some scholars argue that Gouges's position was rooted in her opposition to violence and execution as much as in her monarchist leanings. Like many revolutionaries in France, Gouges worried about instability and the possibility of civil war. She strongly opposed several powerful revolutionary figures, including Maximilien de Robespierre (1758–94) and Jean-Paul Marat (1743–93), as they rose to power in the Jacobin faction, rivals of the Girondins. Seeing Robespierre and Marat as bloodthirsty, she denounced them fiercely and openly.
Factional divisions and infighting increased throughout 1793, accompanied by a surge of popular resistance against the Girondins. By that time the National Assembly had been re-formed as the National Convention. The Convention ordered the arrests of the Girondin deputies, most of whom fled to the countryside. Gouges (who was not a deputy, as women had been denied that opportunity) remained in Paris and published a pamphlet calling for a referendum that would allow the people to vote on a new form of government, choosing among a constitutional monarchy, a federal system, or the republican form favored by her political rivals.
Her proposal flew in the face of a new law forbidding support of any form of government other than the republic envisioned by the revolutionary factions that had risen to power in the Convention. Gouges was arrested in July 1793 and executed the following November. Gouges's death occurred as part of what came to be known as the Reign of Terror (1793–94). During this period, the Jacobin faction of the revolutionaries ruled essentially as a dictatorship, led by Robespierre. Gouges was one of many to be executed during this turbulent period, although she was the only woman executed for her political writings.
Gouges's Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen was a response to and criticism of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted by France's new National Assembly in August 1789. Gouges's title reflects the fact that French has masculine and feminine nouns (as well as gendered adjectives, articles, and other parts of speech). The National Assembly used the masculine noun citoyen (citizen) to stress the important and powerful place of citizens in the new political order. Gouges's title uses the feminine noun citoyenne, which also means "citizen" but refers to citizens who are women.
The primary author of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was the Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834), an aristocrat who had traveled to North America and developed close friendships with George Washington (1732–99) and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). Lafayette supported the American colonists in their revolution and joined the colonists' Continental army to help fight for American independence from Britain. He helped persuade the French king to provide aid to the Americans. Upon his return to France, Lafayette became an important leader, calling for change in his own country. Like Gouges, Lafayette hoped to see a new constitutional monarchy in France, although he also supported a republican form of government, one in which elected delegates represent the opinions and interests of citizens. Lafayette worked with Thomas Jefferson (who had authored the U.S. Declaration of Independence) to draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man. That document was heavily revised during debate in the National Assembly. The final version of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was adopted on August 26, 1789.
The influence of other historical documents, including England's Magna Carta (1215) and the U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776) is apparent in the Assembly's Declaration of the Rights of Man. Because Gouges closely followed the structure and language of the Assembly's declaration, her Declaration of the Rights of Woman likewise contains echoes of these older texts.
Like the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791)—the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution—the Assembly's Declaration of the Rights of Man reflects the influence of Enlightenment philosophers, such as Voltaire (1694–1778), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), and John Locke (1632–1704), whose ideas supported concepts such as natural and inalienable rights and the rule of law. These ideas conflicted with—and eventually supplanted—the principle that had organized European society and laws for centuries: that monarchs were authorized by God to rule. The Assembly's declaration made a revolutionary call for the implementation of a new order based on the idea of rights that were supported by the natural order of the universe and that were applicable to all social classes.
Investing citizens with power and asserting the rights of all citizens was in many senses a radical stance. However, like the other declarations of rights that helped to inspire it, the Assembly's declaration did not address the issue of rights for women or enslaved persons. Both issues were subjects of debate in the late 18th century. France's wealthy Caribbean colonies were based on the labor of enslaved Africans. Many revolutionaries, including both Gouges and Lafayette, were dedicated abolitionists. But, as in the United States, other forces supportive of revolution and change also ardently defended the continuation of slavery.
The question of rights for women, including citizenship, also existed on both sides of the Atlantic. In France, women from various social classes had begun to call for greater rights, particularly in terms of education and property rights. Gouges and others wanted women to be allowed to serve as delegates in the National Assembly, a demand that was rejected. When the Assembly adopted its declaration of rights, Gouges wrote her Declaration of the Rights of Woman as both a call for full rights for women and as an attack on the men who had chosen to exclude women.
Other women also pressured the Assembly to allow women to participate. In particular, the Women's Petition to the National Assembly, presented in either 1788 or 1789, expressed the dismay of women who were upset by the exclusion. The authorship of the petition is anonymous, although Gouges may well have been involved. It made the point that the Assembly purported to assert and defend the rights and equality of all people while deliberately leaving out half the inhabitants of France. It went on to make numerous proposals, including that "all the privileges of the male sex" be abolished. The petition specifically called for women to be able to hold positions in the National Assembly, as well as all types of official roles in regional and municipal structures. The Women's Petition details many of the positions that Gouges's Declaration of the Rights of Woman would go on to proclaim. In that document, Gouges uses and transforms the Assembly's own language, a rhetorical strategy that emphasizes the hypocrisy of those who presented themselves as defenders of rights while stubbornly denying those rights to women who were demanding them.
Gouges's Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen was printed as a pamphlet with several sections: a dedication; a prologue; the declaration itself (a preamble and 17 articles); an autobiographical vignette (a short scene); a postscript; and a new marriage contract, proposed as a replacement for the standard marriage contract common in France at that period. The declaration itself remains the most influential of these texts. Most publications of Gouges's pamphlet omit the vignette, which scholars usually describe as a tirade against a driver who had overcharged Gouges.
The pamphlet begins with a dedication to the French queen, Marie-Antoinette (1755–93). This was a common feature of 18th-century writing. Authors would often include a dedication as a way to honor a benefactor, ask for the support of a powerful person, or explain and defend ideas in the text that would follow. Gouges's decision to include an address to the queen is an indication of her stance on the monarchy. She leaned toward the idea of creating a constitutional monarchy; she opposed the death penalty on principle and did not support the execution of King Louis XVI in January 1793. Gouges's dedication can also be read as an attempt to encourage Marie-Antoinette to consider the demands of the revolutionaries. Gouges (writing in 1791, before the overthrow of the monarchy) believed that if the queen did not embrace at least some ideas of the revolution, then the monarchy would be destroyed—a prediction that turned out to be accurate.
In her dedication, Gouges asks the queen to use her social and political influence to promote the ideas laid out in the Declaration of the Rights of Woman. Gouges states her purpose clearly: "My goal, Madam, is to speak to you frankly; I did not wait for the age of Liberty to express myself in this way: I showed my beliefs with equal force during a time when the blindness of Despots punished such noble audacity."
In referring to the "age of Liberty," Gouges alludes to the prevailing sense that a new political and social era was beginning, while also laying the groundwork for her criticism of the limits the Assembly was placing on the liberty of women. Gouges also claims her own place in history, stressing her years of writing and speaking out about controversial topics. She goes on to stress that women must come to truly understand their "deplorable condition." This previews the postscript that Gouges includes after her declaration, in which she urges women to "wake up ... recognize your rights."
In a brief, separate prologue, Gouges asks, "Man, are you capable of being fair?" She lambasts men for oppressing women and argues that this occurs only among humans. In the natural world, she says, plants and animals demonstrate a natural tendency for both sexes to work together equally. She derides the men of the era who are "blind ... in this century of enlightenment and wisdom." Like despotic rulers, she says, these men want to command women. This is hypocrisy: these men claim to rejoice in the revolution and declare rights, but they only go as far as to speak of rights for men.
Like the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman is preceded by a preamble, or introduction. Throughout her text, Gouges closely echoes the language and structure of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, with pointed changes to make her argument for women's equal rights, including the right to participate in politics and government.
Gouges begins by stating a clear goal: women want to be part of the National Assembly. This is the primary reason for the declaration. Women had been excluded from participating in the new governmental body. Where the Declaration of the Rights of Man begins by identifying "representatives of the French people, organized as a National Assembly," Gouges's text opens by proclaiming that women demand to be part of the National Assembly. Her changes to the Assembly's text are both minor (she changes only a few words) and highly significant. They call for women to have the rights and political power the Assembly's text proclaims, and they suggest that the men who are excluding the women from the Assembly are abusing their power. In this way, Gouges draws an unflattering parallel between her male colleagues and the old powers (the monarchy, aristocracy, and Catholic Church) that the French Revolution criticized and sought to overturn.
In place of the phrase "representatives of the French people," Gouges describes women by referring to the roles they play in society and the family: mothers, daughters, sisters. This rhetoric echoes a long tradition of defining women in terms of their relationships, but it also suggests how Gouges seeks to elevate these feminine roles in both the social and political arenas. (She does not refer to wives. In other writings, Gouges described marriage as a trap and advocated for the right to divorce.) She goes on to define mothers, daughters, and sisters as "representatives of the nation," introducing one of her primary arguments. Gouges's radical claim is that women represent the nation just as men do. The concept of the nation was important to the revolutionaries, as was the idea of "the people." The nation, the collective body of the French people, was to replace the old power structure. In calling women representatives of the nation, Gouges is insisting that they speak for this crucial new body.
Writing in French, she uses the feminine form of the word for representatives: représentantes. English translations often render this word as female representatives, a translation that is accurate but dilutes Gouges's point somewhat. She does not set out to speak of women representatives, but to inscribe the fact of women as representatives of the nation into the political structure. By stating that women are representatives of the nation, Gouges begins to lay out her arguments in favor of women's access to and participation in the new power structure.
In the preamble, Gouges goes on to condemn the ways that the rights of women have been suppressed, through "ignorance, neglect, or contempt." She again echoes the Assembly's language in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. While that document took aim at the monarchy, nobility, and church hierarchy that the revolutionaries opposed, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman points out that similar ignorance and contempt have led specifically to the oppression of women. The consequences of refusing to recognize women's rights, Gouges says, are the social and political problems and the governmental corruption that plague society. This, she writes, underlies the decision to formally declare "the natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of woman." Again, her language deliberately echoes the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Both documents reflect the larger body of Enlightenment discourse that influenced the political and intellectual currents of the day. Gouges uses these language and concepts to claim women's place within the social, political, and intellectual power structure.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man addresses how the acts of the government's legislative and executive powers must be understood and judged in light of the true, legitimate purposes of political institutions. It argues that this allows the actions of political institutions to be respected. This also allows the demands of citizens to be formulated according to clear principles (a reference to the idea of natural and inalienable rights), meaning that they should work toward the common good and the happiness of all members of society.
The Declaration of the Rights of Woman makes the same point but replaces the idea of legislative and executive acts of power with acts of power by men and women. In discussing the demands of citizens, Gouges uses the feminine form of the word, citoyennes, essentially insisting that women qualify as citizens (those who can vote and participate in the political system). She declares that women, who are also citizens, have a fundamental role in the new system and society that the revolution is working to create. Her argument is that both men and women must be part of any political institution.
The preamble ends with a reference to a common view: woman as the fair sex, more beautiful than men. Gouges adds a twist to this old trope, declaring that women are "superior in beauty as ... in courage." This superior courage is demonstrated through "maternal sufferings," a reference to childbirth and to the work of mothering as well. Again, Gouges elevates the role of mother, the social identity most associated with adult women. Notably, she does not refer to the role of wife. Gouges herself had not enjoyed marriage; she sought throughout her life to change the social and legal norms around marriage and advocated for the right to divorce. However, she always strongly defended mothers and children.
Like the Declaration of the Rights of Man, Gouges's Declaration of the Rights of Woman contains 17 articles. Gouges continues to use the language of the Declaration of the Rights of Man almost verbatim, with changes to make her points about women's rights and place in society and the political structure.
The first article addresses the inherent freedom and equality people are born with. The Assembly's text declares that "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights." It goes on to explain that social distinctions—different groups within society—should exist only if these divisions contribute to the common good. Gouges uses this same wording, replacing "Men" with "Woman." Like the American colonists who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the French revolutionaries were inspired by Enlightenment arguments about natural, inalienable rights, including the notion of equality. In her larger body of work, Gouges went further than most of her American and French contemporaries as an ardent opponent of slavery. However, in the declaration she focuses only on the question of women's fundamental freedom and equality.
Gouges also rewrites Articles 2 and 3 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, again to include women. In both texts, Article 2 describes the fundamental purpose of political systems: to preserve the natural rights of citizens. In particular, both texts mention the right to liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression. These were issues at the heart of the revolutionaries' concerns; they worked to expand and protect rights in these areas. Under the old system, royalty and nobles had far greater rights than average people. The revolutionaries sought to change a social order in which many privileges were based on class, wealth, inheritance, and social position. Article 2 of the Assembly's declaration speaks of the "rights of man." Gouges's article is exactly the same, only changing the language to declare the "rights of woman and man."
In Article 3, both texts proclaim that power, or sovereignty, lies with "the Nation"—a rejection of the old system, in which power was held by the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the clergy. The texts replace the old powers with the nation, the body of citizens. However, Gouges also redefines the nation, writing that the nation is simply the union of woman and man. Because the nation is such an important concept for the French revolutionaries, Gouges is insistent in her argument that women are an essential, equal component of the nation, along with men.
In Article 4 of both texts, Gouges and the Assembly define the concept of liberty and consider if and when individual liberty has any limits. The Declaration of the Rights of Man defines liberty as the ability to do anything that does not hurt others. It describes the acceptable limits of individual liberty as safeguards that ensure that other people are also able to enjoy and exercise this same liberty. The particular details of these limits must be established by the law—a concept that is further defined and explored in later articles of the Assembly's document.
Article 4 of Gouges's text contains several significant departures from the Declaration of the Rights of Man, in both language and ideas. In addition to liberty, she includes the notion of justice. Making both ideas equally important and interdependent, she suggests that justice must be considered when defining liberty. Gouges had a long history of writing about and working for better conditions for many oppressed groups, including women, children, the poor, and enslaved persons. This likely influenced her choice to pair liberty and justice as concepts that cannot be separated. Her argument is that because socially and physically strong individuals can more easily exercise their right to individual liberty, a concern for justice helps guarantee this right to liberty for all social groups.
Gouges goes on to define liberty and justice as more than simply not harming others. Rather, she says these terms mean giving to others what belongs to them. Therefore, she continues, the only limits to women's natural rights are "those that the perpetual tyranny of man opposes to them." Here, she is explicitly demanding that women be accorded the natural rights that men are denying them, including most of the men of the new National Assembly. Where the Declaration of the Rights of Man describes a system of laws as the way to establish the particular limits of individual freedom, Gouges thunders that the limits placed on women must be "reformed according to the laws of nature and reason." Again calling upon the Enlightenment ideals of natural law and reason, Gouges criticizes those who have left women out of the Assembly and of the broader discussion of rights, liberty, and equality.
Articles 5–9 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Declaration of the Rights of Woman deal with the concept of the law, equal protection under the law, rights of the accused, regulation of punishment, and the presumption of innocence. These articles echo the developing Anglo-American tradition of legal principles and protections. Again, Gouges alters the Assembly's text to incorporate concerns about women's rights and status under the law.
Article 5 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man declares that the law (or legal system) can only prohibit actions that hurt society. As a corollary, it follows that anything not explicitly forbidden by law cannot be prohibited. These provisions underscore the protection of individual liberty discussed in Article 4. They also attempt to prevent abuses of power, an issue the French revolutionaries had in mind throughout their attempt to change the power structure of their society. Gouges's Article 5 is similar, but she again replaces "the law" with "the laws of nature and reason." This change reflects her concern that laws and the legal system often do not live up to philosophical ideals. Gouges continues to rely on the authority of concepts—natural law, inalienable rights, and reason—that she understands to exist independently, infinitely, and universally, whether or not a society's laws recognize or respect them. These ideals back up her arguments, regardless of how these arguments are received by those in power.
In Article 6 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, law is defined as "the expression of the general will." This reflects a goal of the Revolution: that the will of the people, or the majority, have authority. The revolutionaries were rejecting the notion that the king, the nobility, and the Church had the right to make laws as they saw fit. The Assembly's Article 6 also specifies that all citizens have the right to participate (personally or through representative) in the creation of laws. Furthermore, law must be the same for all, with equal protections and punishments. Finally, all citizens must be equally eligible to hold office or enjoy any public honors or positions, limited only by their merits, not by their social status. Gouges changes this language only to say what the law should be, rather than what it is, and that all citizens should be equally eligible, rather than that they are. She also uses the phrase "all female and male citizens," where the Assembly's declaration speaks of "all Citizens."
Gouges's Article 7 is much briefer than the one in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. In the Assembly's text, Article 7 states that "no man can be accused, arrested, or detained" outside of conditions established by the law. The Assembly's declaration prescribes punishment for any person who in way contributes to giving or carrying out orders that imprison, detain, or punish a person outside of the legal system. This responds to abuses of power that had helped to spark the revolution, particularly the king's use of the lettre de cachet, a document used to authorize seizing and imprisoning a person without any prior legal process. The Declaration of the Rights of Man also states that citizens who are legally accused or detained are required to obey and accept the legal structure.
In Gouges's text, Article 7 begins by saying that "no woman is exempted," stressing her view that women have always been governed by laws despite having no say in them. She goes on to note that women are accused, arrested, and detained under the law, and that women, just as men, obey the law. This language previews one of the most famous points of her declaration, which she makes later, in Article 10: that if women can be executed based on the law, they ought to have a voice in making it.
Article 8 of Gouges's declaration repeats the Assembly's text verbatim, except to add women into the equation at the end. This article addresses the question of how and when the legal system administers punishment. Under the ancien régime, people were often thrown in prison or otherwise punished arbitrarily. The Assembly's text specifies that punishments must only be legally applied; Gouges adds that the law must apply to women. In Article 9, however, she radically shifts her tone. Here, the Declaration of the Rights of Man proclaims the principle of the presumption of innocence (an idea that had nominally existed during under the ancien régime but had often been ignored). It goes on to limit the rigor, or harshness, that can be used in detaining a person who must be arrested. Gouge's corresponding article is brief: "Any woman being declared guilty, all rigor is exercised by the law." Where the Assembly's text describes what should happen to guilty persons, Gouges stresses the reality that legal structures do not hesitate to punish women harshly.
In both declarations, Articles 10 and 11 deal with the right to freedom of expression and thought. Article 11 specifically protects the right to communicate thoughts and opinions, essentially guaranteeing freedom of the press and other forms of writing. Gouges's Article 10 contains one of her most famous lines. The Assembly's text says that no one should be harassed or acted against for their opinions, even religious ones. Gouges repeats this, but rather than specifying "even religious" views, she substitutes "even fundamental" views. She means that the deepest, most important, or even the most radical views that women hold must not be excluded from the protection of freedom of thought and expression.
Her next point is resounding: "woman has the right to mount the scaffold, so she should have the right equally to mount the rostrum." The scaffold is the platform upon which a person is executed; the rostrum is the platform from which a speaker addresses an official body, such as the National Assembly. With this point, she most clearly communicates her anger at the injustice she is writing against: the exclusion of women from the political process. She emphasizes that women are on the receiving end of the decisions made by political and legal bodies, despite this exclusion. With this image of the scaffold and the rostrum, Gouges shows that women often suffer harsh and unjust treatment at the hands of the systems of power that are closed to them.
Article 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man proclaims the right to express, write, and publish any thoughts or opinions. Gouges departs from the issue of being able to write and publish freely, instead introducing the issue of children born outside of marriage. She argues that freedom of expression includes the right of women to proclaim the identity of the father of a child. Gouges had long argued for the rights of children whose fathers did not recognize them, as well as the rights of mothers to publicly identify the father. In her declaration, she strenuously objects to the "barbarous prejudice" that forces women to hide the truth when they have a child with a man to whom they are not married. Without social and legal support to identify such fathers, the mothers and children had essentially no hope of any kind of financial support. With limited avenues to earn a living, unmarried mothers were mostly condemned to poverty. Children who were considered illegitimate had few social or economic prospects. Gouges's choice to include this point in an article about freedom of expression suggests that her outrage was not limited to the legal issues surrounding issues of paternity. She vehemently protests the social mores that underlie the unjust treatment of women and children stigmatized by birth outside of marriage—an issue that was mostly ignored by the male thinkers of the Enlightenment.
Articles 12–15 of both declarations discuss the need for a public force (a police force, or other institution granted law enforcement powers), the need for citizens to contribute financially to maintain such a force and to pay for the administration of government, and the right of citizens to be involved in the raising and spending of such funds.
Gouges's Article 12 replaces the Assembly's call for a public force that guarantees the rights of citizens with a call for public powers that guarantee the rights of women. In the Declaration of the Rights of Man, Article 13 discusses why citizens must contribute (pay taxes) to support police and government and how this burden should be equally distributed. Gouge's text makes a different point: the contributions of women and men are already equal. Here, she is again pointing out a frustrating disparity: social and legal structures make requirements of women, while also shutting them out of opportunities. Gouges argues that because men and women are given equal burdens by society, women must also have equal access to positions, work, responsibilities, and privileges.
She reiterates this view in Article 14. The Assembly's text lays out the idea that citizens have the right to understand what taxes are needed for, to agree to them, to follow how taxes are used, and to determine the details of the tax system. (These provisions respond to widespread dissatisfaction in France over heavy taxes imposed by the monarchy.) Gouges's text repeats these concerns, but she seizes the opportunity to discuss the notion of consenting to taxation. Women, she says, cannot participate in a system without having equal access to it. She notes that this does not simply mean having equal access to the money (and associated services) collected through taxes. Equality means the equal opportunity to participate in the tax administration system. Again, Gouges calls for women to have access to official positions of power.
Article 15 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man states that society has the right to require public officials to give an account or justification of their activities and decisions. Gouges replaces the term society with a rewrite that emphasizes the collective power of women: "the mass of women, joined together with men in paying taxes." She repeats the requirement that public officials must answer to the public. Her wording highlights the fact that many writers and documents speak in terms of society, or the social good, even though they often leave out women when it comes to the details of rights and equality.
The image of the "mass of women" that opens Gouges's Article 15 communicates the sense that women, perhaps particularly those involved in the French Revolution, are a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, women had played important roles in the revolution. For example, one pivotal early event became known as the Women's March on Versailles (also called the October March.) In October 1789, a few months after the July storming of the Bastille prison, Parisian women protesting food shortages and high prices joined together with groups seeking political reform. They seized weapons and marched to the royal court at Versailles, several miles outside the city. The confrontation eventually resulted in the king and his family being forced to return to Paris. The event was a crucial turning point, shifting the balance of power from the monarchy toward the people and revolutionary groups. (The monarchy was then overthrown in 1792). When Gouges speaks of the mass of women in her declaration, she is likely reminding her contemporaries both that women compose half of society and that the women who have been shut out of the National Assembly are a group that has already demonstrated its power to push for change.
In both declarations, Article 16 stresses the guarantee of rights and the separation of powers. Gouges's Article 16 repeats the text of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, that without these provisions, a society cannot have a constitution (that is, any such constitution is meaningless). But she goes on to say that a constitution "is null and void if the majority of individuals composing the nation has not cooperated in its drafting." If women cannot participate in creating the new constitution, she warns, then that constitution is not legitimate.
Article 17 of both documents deals with the question of property. The Declaration of the Rights of Man declares that the right to property is inviable and sacred; therefore, property cannot be seized except when it is clearly necessary for the public good, done so legally, and accompanied by fair compensation. This article seeks to prevent abusive and unjust seizing of property, a major concern for the revolutionaries.
Gouges's article refocuses the issue, considering instead the issue of women's right to own and inherit property. This was another concern that Gouges worked on throughout her life. In her Article 17, she proclaims that "property belongs to both sexes, whether united or separated." Here, she is advocating for a woman's right to inherit or keep property in the event of divorce or when her husband dies. Gouges also strongly supported the right to divorce, which was not legal at the time. In her text, she seeks to provide greater property rights to women as individuals, making them less dependent on husbands or other male relatives.
In a postscript, a short additional text added after the end of the main text, Gouges calls on women to "wake up ... recognize your rights." She describes how the new, enlightened era is sweeping away prejudice and superstition. She argues that men have become free in this new age but have chosen to become unjust toward women. She exhorts her fellow women to recognize the power they have always had in society and to step up to demand the same political rights and powers men are now claiming.
She notes how the doors to economic power and security are closed to women, comparing women to slaves. Women's access to income and wealth, through work or inheritance, is mostly blocked. Marriage, which was the primary way women secured both economic and social power, Gouges declares to be "a tomb." Unmarried women have few rights. She particularly stresses that because of "ancient and inhuman laws," unmarried women do not have the right to "the name and goods of her children's father." This was an issue of particular importance to Gouges. She called for women to have the right to name their children's fathers. This would provide the children their true identity. But for those whose fathers had a higher social position than the mother, public acknowledgement of the father would, in theory, give the children more social power. Being able to name the father would also give the mother and children a claim to financial support, including being able to inherit money and property. Gouges wanted women to have full access to jobs that would permit them to earn a living, but she also wanted them, and their children, to have access to inherited wealth.
Gouges includes a marriage contract at the end of her text. In the 18th century, when couples married they signed a contract with specific provisions regarding spousal obligations, ownership of property, and other legal and economic issues. The marriage contract published with Gouges's declaration proposes conditions that are more favorable to women than the standard contracts couples signed. It stipulates that property will be communal—the wife as well as the husband would own property, rather than all the property belonging to the husband. Gouges's contract also specifies that the married persons have the right to divide property among their children as they see fit. This includes children "from whatever bed they come." In other words, children who are illegitimate (conceived with someone to whom the parent is not married) have the right to inherit.
Gouges's Declaration of the Rights of Woman did not have the impact she had hoped for. Most of the male revolutionaries ignored her call for inclusion and equal rights. In 1792 the French Assembly did legalize divorce, a cause Gouges had fought for. (A decade later, under Napoleon Bonaparte [1769–1821], divorce was restricted.) Most of what Gouges called for in her declaration fell on deaf ears. Women were not allowed to join the Assembly. In 1793, less than two years after writing her declaration, Gouges was executed during the Reign of Terror.
However, her text did later catch the attention of other writers and thinkers. In the 19th century the political activist Abbé Henri Grégoire (1750–1831) included Gouges on a list honoring figures in history who had fought for the abolition of slavery. During the 20th century, French scholars began to take an interest in Gouges and in the Declaration of the Rights of Woman. In her groundbreaking work The Second Sex (1949), the feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86) wrote about Gouges as an early feminist who had protested the treatment of women. Outside of France, Gouges and her declaration have become more well known and more frequently studied as interest in women's studies and the place of women in history has increased.
Gouge's declaration was an important early step toward greater equality for women. In France, as in many countries, women continued to push for greater rights over the 19th and 20th centuries. During the 19th century, French women gained greater property rights, such as the right to inherit property and to own bank accounts. French women gained full voting rights in 1945. In this period, the first women delegates to the National Assembly were elected, finally fulfilling Gouges's demand that women have full access to France's political institutions.