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Reading History through an Interdisciplinary Perspective

Olympe de Gouges' Declaration on the Rights of Woman (1792)

In 1791, French revolutionary Marie Gouze, under the penname Olympe de Gouges, authored the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizeness.” She intended the document as a riposte to the famous “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” which had been enacted by the French National Assembly in August 1789. As De Gouges rightly pointed out, the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” excluded women from full citizenship. After penning her own “Declaration” De Gouges became increasingly critical of the Revolution as the radical “Jacobins” came to power. She was executed during the “Terror” as a supposed counter-revolutionary. Historians have, nonetheless, seen the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizeness” as highly significant. Below, the History department faculty share how this document resonates with their areas of expertise.

  • Geoff Read

  • For an historian of gender, race, and politics in modern France, this is a very rich historical source. Here De Gouges points out that the French revolutionaries, despite their egalitarian rhetoric, were excluding more than half the population from full citizenship. As she wrote, “The constitution is null and void if the majority of individuals composing the nation has not cooperated in its drafting.” She thereby used Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the “general will” against the French revolutionary leaders, who believed that they were the inheritors of the Rousseauian legacy. What De Gouges shared with her fellow revolutionaries was a conviction, in keeping with Rousseau’s teachings, that the people rather than the King embodied the nation, and that legitimacy thus flowed from their support: “The law should be the expression of the general will.” Her innovation was in seeing women as having a claim equal to the men’s rights of the citizen; yet, like male republicans, even De Gouges did not see women as identical to men; rather, women, for her, were different but equal. De Gouges therefore based her claims to equal rights in gendered language, emphasizing in particular women’s sex-specific virtues generated from motherhood:  “… the sex that is superior in beauty as in courage, needed in maternal sufferings,….” This “relational feminism”, as historian Karen Offen has called it, would characterize French feminism well into the twentieth century. Thus, De Gouges at once challenged the gendering of nationalism as masculine, critiqued the development wherein French revolutionaries and later republicans saw women as passive symbols of virtue rather than as active citizens, and exemplified the view within nineteenth and twentieth century French feminism that the sexes were different but equal. These issues are considered in the following courses: History 1801E, “Controversies in Global History,” History 2810F/G, “Gender in Modern Europe,” and History 4802F/G, “Masculinity and Modern History.”
  • Nina Reid-Maroney

  • “Women, wake up; The tocsin of reason sounds throughout the universe; recognise your rights. The powerful empire of nature is no longer surrounded by prejudice, fanaticism, superstition, and lies. The torch of truth has dispersed all clouds of folly and usurpation.”

    This selection from the text places Olympe De Gouges in the intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment. She appeals to the belief that there are natural rights by which human societies ought to be governed, that nature is ordered and rational, and that human freedom is revealed in the light of reason. In the courses History 2709F/G “Race, Rights and Revolution: The Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century” and History 2813F/G“Making Waves: Women’s Activism in the Atlantic World,” we explore how the ideas of the Enlightenment circulate and connect people across the eighteenth-century’s “republic of letters.” But the text also encourages us to complicate our understanding of the Enlightenment, and its grounding in the scientific revolution, particularly with respect to the implications for women. The same Enlightenment that De Gouge equates with freedom also promoted hierarchies of gender and racial difference. The ideas of the Enlightenment had the power to oppress as well as the power to liberate, and there were certainly a few clouds of folly that the “torch of truth” left behind.

  • Jun Fang

  • The Declaration of the Rights of Women is a pioneering feminist document that had a revolutionary impact on the modern world. Its seventeen articles not only demand equal rights for women, but also proffer to share the same duties with men. In History 2603E, when the course focus moves to the age of reforms in late imperial China, I often ask my students to study an identical public appeal which is entitled “An Address to Two Hundred Million Fellow Countrywomen” and was written by the female revolutionary Qiu Jin (who was tragically executed at the age of 32 for her bold feminist actions) together with the French proclamation. The task is to compare the similarities and differences between the two in their pursuit of gender equality. Although there is no conclusive evidence indicating de Gouges’ direct influence on Qiu, the exercise is considered relevant and is welcomed by the students.
  • Tom Peace

  • Sections three and twelve in the Declaration of the Rights of Woman resonate with my work on settler colonialism in northeastern North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The principles set out here emphasize the importance of both women and men to fostering a dynamic political community as well as the need for women to have power within that community. These two political principles resonate with what I see in Wendat and Haudenosaunee politics where clan mothers play an essential role in selecting leaders and where married men lived with among their wives’ extended family. As a document written at the end of the eighteenth century, the Declaration is a reminder that gender is historically constructed and varies by time and place.  Furthermore, in identifying these differences, the document helps us identify the ways in which Indigenous gender identities and relationships were seen as problematic for European imperialists. To learn more, consider taking History 1801E: Controversies in Global History, History 2201E: Canada: Origins to the Present, or History 3201E: European-Amerindian Relations in Canada.

  • Amy Bell

  • Section seven:  “No woman is exempted; she is indicted, arrested, and detained in the cases determined by the law” and section ten: “Woman has the right to mount the scaffold, so she should have the right equally to mount the rostrum” relate to my research and teaching on gender differences and crime. In History 3406F/G, I examine the gender differences in law and punishment in modern Britain: looking at laws aimed specifically at one gender such as rape or infanticide, as well as the different sentences and punishments men and women received in the criminal justice system. Documents such as this and the statute and common laws express an ideological ideal of justice which was much messier and more complex at the level of individual crimes narrated in trial transcripts, depositions and newspaper coverage.