Sunday, October 9, 2016

Olympe and Mary, 18th Century Feminist Trailblazers

“So you have found love in Paris”, Olympe de Gouges greeted English war correspondent  Mary Wollstonecraft in her apartment in early 1793. Mary blushed, did not respond instead asking if Olympe was afraid of the guillotine.
Olympe did not answer the question but told Mary that she was happy to welcome her. She added that “France is at war with itself. The reign of Terror is destroying our new-found equality and the dictatorship of radical Jacobins is wiping out the freedom given to women by the revolution. Mary, beware, everybody can be reported as an enemy of Robespierre and his clique of blood thirty fanatics. Mobs are murdering people without trial and others are sent to the guillotine”.
Mary replied “I am concerned but not afraid. Do you know how is Théroigne de Méricourt doing? I heard that she had been seriously beaten by a mob of revolutionary women.”
Olympe answered “She is in the hospital with a bad head injury. Can you imagine that she was stripped naked by a gang of brainless, illiterate and vulgar women! They didn’t even understood that Théroigne was encouraging them to fight for their rights and be able to bear arms like the sans-culottes, their men folks. No, they didn’t understand. Equal rights for women are inconceivable and irrelevant to them! Mary, how right you are to encourage women’s education. Educated women can be independent and play a meaningful role in society.”
Mary replied “I am only able to do this because my book A Vindication of the Rights of Women has just been published. It has made me famous in England; now I am able to support myself and my two sisters.”
“Mary, you are a role model. I understand that in England, wives have even less rights than in France! Are they not at their husband’s mercy, their property? I also heard that their children are regarded as the father’s property. I wish you luck in your mission.” Returning to the fate of Théroigne, Olympe asked Mary when she had met her.
“Some time ago,” replied Mary. “I am very impressed by her dashing allure: she was dressed in a man’s riding habit with a large feathered hat. I listened to her haranguing a group of women patriots trying to convince them to form revolutionary clubs. She is a former actress and knows how to speak.”
Olympe arose and voiced her anger at the Jacobins who had started the bloody Terror. Louis XVI, the French king, has been guillotined at the end of January 1792, a mistake according to her. France was now at war with neighboring nations, and their rulers were trying to stop the trans-border spreading of revolutionary propaganda. On the defensive, the Jacobins were now targeting women, stripping them of their previous social gains; divorce and inherence had in particular been rescinded. A gag rule has been imposed, and women like her were prevented from involving themselves in politics.
“What are you planning to do?” asked Mary.
“I will sharpen my pen, and fight to the bitter end for the right to free speech,” replied Olympe. She looked at Mary and again asked her about her Parisian romance. This time Mary could not escape. At 33, she qualified as a spinster. She had nonetheless attracted the attention of Gilbert Imlay, an American in Paris who used his American Revolution credentials to launch a business in revolutionary France. His involvement in the American Revolution fascinated Mary, and she had fallen madly in love to the point of irrationality.
“We are soul mates”, said Mary. She did not want to admit that she was emotionally hooked on her American lover. “We are free to love each other without getting into a marriage contract. It is a match of equals.”
Olympe wished her happiness, but warned that “love goes hand in hand with pregnancies; this is our lot, and babies are our responsibility. Beware of men, many are weak and won’t feel guilty in abandoning an independent woman if she does not need their financial protection.”
They parted, promising to meet again to exchange views on the evolution of the revolution.
 maryw       olympe
This is a fictional meeting, the fruit of this blogger’s imagination. In topsy-turvy Paris, during the Terror, Mary Wollstonecraft knew of Olympe de Gouges but never had the opportunity to meet her.
In 1791, Olympe de Gouges, the abolitionist, feminist playwright and political activist wrote the famous declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. She had famously declared that “if woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.”
Unrepentant and true to her ideas, she wrote pamphlets against the Terror until the guillotine chopped her head off on November 3, 1793. She was 45 year old. Portrayed as a virago by her executioners, she was the only woman executed for sedition (her political writings) during the revolution. Because of her gender, her avant garde views were either dismissed or received with hostility. She qualifies as the first feminist martyr.
If de Gouges were a man, she would have been buried in the pantheon of national heroes, but as a woman she remained shunned by 19th century male historians. They could not accept that such progressive and equalitarian ideas sprouted from the head of a petite bourgeoise from a small town in France. De Gouges’ body of work was overlooked during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Finally, she is getting the recognition she deserves.
The same can be said about Wollstonecraft’s legacy. Her journalistic and philosophical works were discredited by the Victorian elite. In a way, she had her bad judgment to blame for the onslaught against her ideas and writings. The disclosure of her foolish, hysterical behavior and lack of self-esteem, during her liaison with Imlay damaged her reputation for a long period. Mary spent three years in revolutionary France, and wrote An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (published in 1794). To protect her from the reach of the blood-thirsty Terror, Imlay had registered her as his wife. In 18th century, sex meant pregnancy, and Mary had an illegitimate daughter with Imlay. Mary, who had promoted women independence in peaceful England, discovered maternal bliss and longed for domesticity in troubled France. Back in England, Imlay, always in search of adventures both sexual and commercial, abandoned nagging “wife” Mary, leaving her emotionally devastated, suicidal and her freethinker reputation in tatters. Her craving for domestic dependency brought her intellectual downfall and she was branded as a hypocrite by her peers.
Finally, Wollstonecraft married William Godwin, a freethinker like her. She died in 1797 at the age of 38 soon after having delivered her second daughter Mary Shelley who made a name for herself as the author of Frankenstein. Mary Wollstonecraft lacked Olympe de Gouges’ emotional strength and strong judgement; however her psychological shortcomings do not diminish her contribution to women’s empowerment.
References: Gordon, Charlotte. Romantic Outlaws. Random House, 2015. A biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley.