by Donald Nicholson-Smith


French version

Olympe de Gouges, a Daughter of Quercy
on her Way to the Panthéon

The people of Quercy can be proud of the products of their soil, especially the wines of Cahors. They may also legitimately point with pride at a good many local heroes, writers and historical notabilities who have achieved national and often international renown. The most illustrious of them all, however, may not be Lucterius, the last Gaul to resist Julius Caesar; it may not be Pope John XXII, nor Alain de Solminhac, bishop of the Counter-Reformation, nor Clément Marot or Hughes Salel, poets, nor Fénelon, nor Saint-Jean-Gabriel Perboyre, martyred in China in 1842, nor Murat or Bessières, companions of Napoleon; it may not be Léon Gambetta, nor even Champollion. It may well be a woman.  Judging by the number of university theses devoted to her, by the many translations into foreign languages and the longstanding worldwide impact of her writings, or by the dramatic and symbolic force of her execution, one must conclude that the most celebrated of all Quercy's children is Olympe de Gouges. 

When Robespierre and his friends congratulated themselves in November 1793 on having guillotined a woman for her democratic ideas — for she could be accused of no crime or misdemeanour — they could not know that they would themselves soon be foreshortened and tossed into the dustbin of History. Nor that their victim, Olympe de Gouges, the most beautiful daughter of Quercy, and in many ways the founder of the movement for women's emancipation, would one day enter the Panthéon. 

To be truthful, Olympe has not yet quite completed her entrance into that Parisian temple of French Republicanism in Rue Soufflot, but in what follows we shall explain why the President of the Midi-Pyrénées Region is entitled to demand of the President of the Repblic that she enter forthwith. The new Mayor of Montauban, Mme Barrèges, has just created a foundation named after Olympe de Gouges. The author of the article below, René Viénet, suggests that her name be given to the University of Cahors if and when that institution is revived, which would present the perfect opportunity to pay homage to a woman executed on 3 November 1793 for having, among other things, demanded the right to vote for her sisters. A right they would have to wait for (in France) until 1945.  

Olympe de Gouges was born in 1745, fruit of the passion of Jacques Le Franc de Caïx2 for the first love of his youth in Montauban, Anne-Olympe Mouisset, Gouze by her married name. Never recognized by her natural father, Marie Gouze, later Widow Aubry, chose to be known as Olympe de Gouges. She was to be rejected, too, by her son Pierre, at the very moment when Robespierre was having her decapitated for demanding equality between the sexes and democracy.  

Since Quercy's division by Napoleon into two departments, Lot and Tarn-et-Garonne, it is her native town Montauban that, thanks to the late lamented Félix Castang, has best preserved Olympe's memory by naming a high school after her.  But Olympe belongs to the whole of Quercy, and it is only right that our elected officials should demand not only that her image appear in future on postage stamps or on euro notes, but also that she should be inducted into the Panthéon, where she will have many things to talk about with Voltaire, Descartes, Mirabeau3, Marie Curie, Zola, and Jean Moulin.   

Since the physical remains of Olympe de Gouges have vanished along with those of the other martyrs of the Terror, there will be no need for a casket to be borne up Rue Soufflot to the Panthéon. In the absence of a bier, therefore, it would seem reasonable to suggest that Olympe's remains be represented by a wine, and what better for this purpose than a bottle of Cahors?  

Prior to Olivier Blanc's works, with their impeccable scholarship and infectious sympathy for their subject4, Olympe was often condescendingly described as a political extremist, an author of little interest, or an illiterate suspected of libertinism. She had nevertheless (there was no getting away from it!) accomplished a stroke of genius by subversively adapting, and extending, the Declaration of the Rights of Man with her Declaration of the Rights of Woman5--a text destined to travel to every corner of the earth and become a cynosure on the occasion of the bicentennial celebrations for the French Revolution.  

A Genius Ahead of Her Time  

The fact is that, just like Louise Labbé two centuries earlier, Olympe was a genius ahead of her time--and way ahead of her early critics, including Michelet (whose criticism was not confined to her Declaration). Olympe is a true heroine, a natural subject for a novel, a film, a comic book, or an opera. She is a great figure in the history of humanity, someone in whom a province or a whole country may easily recognize itself, and someone, too, who belongs not only to the militant feminists who have already quite properly paid homage to her in many ways.  We can only dream of one day coming upon the manuscript that Alexandre Dumas, having already dealt with Olympe de Clèves, never wrote on Olympe de Gouges.  

The very thing that once made Olympe an object of scorn, namely the seamlessness of her way of living, her dramatic work, and her social convictions, the absence of any contradiction in her between thought and action, is precisely what most impresses us today. It is likely that Olympe was not well able to write, but gave admirable dictation; she also had a magnificent grasp of the fact that changing just a few words in, or adding one or two paragraphs to well accepted and admired texts can produce truly explosive pyrotechnics.

 The Love of Freedom and the Freedom to Love  

Widowed very young, universally described as a woman of exceptional beauty, Olympe decided to leave Quercy with her son Pierre. It was at that time, according to some of her admirers, that she stopped for a while at Parnac, on the banks of the Lot opposite her father's château at Caïx, where she appears never to have been admitted.  That is how Olympe became the shade that to this day haunts the old stones of Régagnac.  

Once in Paris, Olympe learnt the French language and embraced the life style of a free woman--and a libertine one, in the sense that she chose lovers with discernment, and never remarried. With the financial support of of her principal lover, she published political posters, manifestoes and theatre pieces which testify to a prodigious power to anticipate future democratic demands. Among them: an equality between the sexes extending to conjugal and separation agreements; full recognition and equality for illegitimate children; people's juries for criminal trials; solidarity with the poorest of the poor; income taxes; liberation of slaves in the French colonies6; and the abolition of the death penalty.  

Olympe, however, had nothing of the fashionable radical in the manner of a Simone de Beauvoir, who perhaps had an acute feel for the Zeitgeist but who squandered even this small talent by subordinating it to a complacent admiration of dictatorship7. Olympe was no co-opter, no compromiser; rather, she was a forerunner, and one endowed with the sort of courage that can smash every form of dictatorship.  

Against the Sanguinocrats8 

In her play on slavery, Olympe denounced the acting troupe of the Comédie Française for refusing to blacken their faces with liquorice juice and act the part of slaves.  On one occasion, when a group of ignoramuses beneath her windows to vilify her, she went straight down to the street to confront them. Though a Republican. she offered to advocate for Louis XVI on the grounds that the monarch's own lawyer was too old and tired to make the case, notably, that logic demanded that the King be kept alive after the monarchy had been overthrown: a Capet guillotined, she argued, would inevitably give rise to a dynastic successor and a regency in exile. One is put in mind of Cromwell explaining to Mordaunt, in Twenty Years After, why it would have been preferable to let Charles escape the headsman's axe.  

Olympe's courage was to find even more extraordinary and  moving expression when, from her prison, on the eve of an execution that she could likely have avoided by flight, she mounted an attack on Robespierre in the form of an Address to to the Revolutionary Court9. This text deploys an eloquence and a violence against the Montagnards such as was very rarely heard in the French Revolution. But Mad Maximilien, mullah of the Cult of the Supreme Being, the most notorious of the sanguinocrats, the perverted mind lurking behind the defence of the shoemakers of Arras10, ancestor of Stalin and his purges, of Mao and his massacres, the inspiration of so many dictators—Maximilien Robespierre could not abide truths hammered home with such accuracy, and on the 13 Brumaire of Year II (3 November 1793), Olympe went to the scaffold.  

That same day saw the première, at the Académie de Musique (the future Paris Opéra), of Miltiade à Marathon (music by Le Moyne; librettist, Guillard); just a few days earlier the same stage had carried the Paris première Mozart's Marriage of Figaro.  

Olympe in the Panthéon  

The bicentennial of the French Revolution could hardly be the occasion to glorify the guillotine which beheaded nearly twenty thousand people in a few short months, including Madame Roland and Olympe de Gouges.  Despite its its gaily painted wood boards, the machine was clearly neither dusted off nor set up for the commemoration. It remained in sad storage in the Conciergerie, dutifully inventoried in the files of the Ministry of Justice11. It will doubtless come out, however, for the films now being planned on Olympe's life journey from Montauban to Parnac, and then from Quercy to the Place de la Révolution (today Place de la Concorde). It is to be hoped that these films will play their part in the overdue recognition of la belle Quercynoise and help elevate fer to her deserved eminence, not just in the Panthéon but also in the imagined identity of the French people at large, and first and foremost in the minds all those fortunate enough to dwell in the land of the Tarn and the Lot.

René Viénet  <>  

1  The present article first appeared in La Semaine du Lot no. 273, 3 November 2001 — this date being the anniversary of the execution of Olympe de Gouges.  On the Internet it may be found on an excellent web site devoted to the province of Quercy, its history, its tourist attractions, its gastronomy, and so on  (Go to <>). The text is reproduced here as an introduction to the preparatory meeting (26 May 2002) of first Olympe de Gouges symposium in Taipei (3 Nov 2002).  No changes have been made save for the addition of some explanatory material in the notes by the author and the translator.  It is worth noting that this article was obviously read (and understood) in certain quarters, because a few weeks after its publication Jacques Chirac, President of the French Republic, devoted a whole day in Montauban to the celebration of Olympe's memory.  And on the 2001 "Women's Day" in Paris, Olympe's portrait was displayed along with those of other exemplary French women between the columns of the Panthéon [Note added in May 2002.]

 2  Also Marquis de Pompignan, whose seat, the Château de Caïx, is near Luzech, just across the river from the Parnac meander of the Lot. Today the château belongs to the Danish Royal Family.  

3  In April 1791 the Constituent Assembly decreed that the new Church of Sainte-Geneviève should henceforward house the remains of great men. On the very same day the body of Mirabeau was laid therein.  But even if Mirabeau was thus the Panthéon's first inductee, two months ahead of Voltaire and two years before Descartes, he was evicted in September 1794 when Marat arrived.  But not permanently! The same vacillation awaited Marat, the country's gratitude to whom expired in in early 1795.  For fear of making any more such gaffes, the Convention decided that the honors of the Panthéon should be bestowed on no citizen, nor a bust placed in any public place, until ten years after their death.  The vast majority of the great men who now lie in the Panthéon are allies of Napoleon. [Note added in May 2002.]   

4  Olivier Blanc's Olympe de Gouges (Paris: Syros, 1981; second edition, 1989) is out of print. His prefaces to the two volumes of Olympe's Écrits politiques (Paris: Côté Femmes, 1993), as all his other books, are of great interest. An indispensable and enjoyable work is Françoise Auricoste, Histoire des femmes quercynoises (Cahors: Quercy-Recherche, 1997).  Readers interested in Olympe and the history of women's rights  cannot be too strongly urged to begin their research at the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand, 76 rue Nationale, 75013 Paris (<>).  

5  See Histoire des droits et des libertés en France, a catalogue published in 1968, a few years before the bicentennial of the French revolution, by the Archives de France for the twentieth anniversary of the “Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man” (United Nations, 10 December 1948). The first “declaration of the rights of man” was composed in August 1789.  On 3 September 1791, the Constituent National Assembly published the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” as the preamble to the constitutional law that Louis XVI was to sign on 14 September. The “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen”, written and distributed by Olympe de Gouges, bears the same date.  

6  The abolition of slavery was voted into law in 1794, four months after Olympe's execution. It was legalized once more under Napoleon, and finally abolished only in 1848, more than half a century after the anti-slavery campaign led by Olympe de Gouges.

7 Those in need of ammunition against M. Sartre and Mme de Beauvoir could do worse than consult a work that ought to be better known than it is: Gilbert Joseph, Une si douce occupation (Paris: Albin Michel, 1991) [“Such a Charming Occupation”, the title puns on the double meaning of "occupation": pastime/military control of France by Nazis — Trans.] .

8  "Sanguinocrat" is a neologism of the Revolutionary period attributable to Louis-Sébastien Mercier, author of the celebrated Tableaux de Paris and Olympe's very great friend and, in all likelihood, lover. [Trans.]  

9  On Robespierre, see P. Bessand-Massenet's excellent Robespierre, l'homme et l'idée, new edition (Paris: Fallois, 2001).  

10  Cf. “Cahier de doléances des cordonniers de la ville d'Arras”, drawn up by Robespierre, Archives Municipales D'Arras, AA 118ff, 207-8.  [Note added in May 2002.]

11  Or so one may assume, though this has not really been verified.  Even the best- documented sources on the guillotine are not clear.  [Note added in May 2002.]


As originally published, this article was accompanied by three illustrations:  (see French version)

1.  Portrait of Olympe de Gouges (Musée Carnavalet, Paris). Probably a purely conjectural likeness: the only known genuine portrait from life is no doubt that in pastel by Kurcharski, unearthed by Olivier Blanc in 2001. An exceptional discovery in its own right. This image testifies to the great beauty of Olympe, as also to her amiable and joyful personality.  It was reproduced for the first time in Olivier Blanc’s L’amour à Paris au temps de Louis XVI [Perrin, Paris, 2001] and thanks to his courtesy we are able to reproduce a b&w print of it as the cover of the present Cahier [Note added in May 2002.]  

2.     The Château de Parnac, where Olympe is thought she could have found shelter when the door to the Château de Caïx was barred to her.  

3.     Portrait of Olympe's father, Jean-Jacques Le Franc, Marquis de Pompignan, of the Académie Française (1709-1784), reproduced from a printed brochure. We hope the Académie française and/or the Pompignan family still preserve an original painting we could reproduce in the first issue of Cahiers Olympe de Gouges, à TaiWan [Note added in May 2002.]  

Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

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