Olympe de Gouges, born on May 7, 1748, was a political activist during a time when it wasn’t particularly safe to be one. She lived in France during the Revolution and the Reign of Terror and expressed her convictions through her writings. As tensions increased, so did her involvement.
Born Marie Gouze, she took the name Olympe de Gouges when she moved to Paris in 1770 after her husband of a loveless marriage died. Her parents were merchants, but when she moved to Paris, she worked hard to associate with the aristocracy and to lose her provincial accent. She frequented salons and made the acquaintance of writers and intellectuals. In 1784, she began her own career as a writer.
De Gouges was a passionate advocate of human rights and opposed to injustice in many forms. She wrote plays opposing slavery and promoting the rights of women. One of her most well-known works is Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, written in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. She also opposed capital punishment, including that of Louis XVI, which earned her much criticism from hard line republicans.
Finally, in 1793 after a number of her associates including the Girondins were arrested and executed, Olympe herself was arrested. She spent three months in jail without an attorney because the judge decided that she was “more than capable of representing herself.” During this time with the help of friends, she was able to complete two more texts describing the revolutionary tribunal. Although a supporter of the revolution, in these works she condemned the Terror. Finally, she was sentenced to death and executed by guillotine on November 3, 1793.
Find out what else happened on May 7 in Women’s History.