Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen
The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (French: Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne), also known as the Declaration of the Rights of Woman, was written in 1791 by French activist, feminist, and playwright Olympe de Gouges in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. By publishing this document, de Gouges hoped to expose the failures of the French Revolution in the recognition of sex equality, but failed to create any lasting impact on the direction of the Revolution. As a result of her writings (including The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen), de Gouges was accused and convicted of treason, resulting in her immediate execution along with the Girondists in the Reign of Terror (one of only three women beheaded during the Reign of Terror - and the only executed for her political writings). While The Declaration of the Rights of Woman should not, by any means, be considered a manifesto of the women's movement of the late eighteenth century, it is significant because it spelled out a set of feminist concerns that collectively reflected the aims of many French Revolution activists.
- 1 Historical context
- 2 The Declaration
- 2.1 Call to Action
- 2.2 Preamble to the Declaration
- 2.3 Articles of the Declaration
- 2.4 Postscript to the Declaration
- 3 Reactions to the Declaration
- 4 Analysis
- 5 See also
- 6 External links
- 7 References
Previous Attempts at Equality
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was adopted in 1789 by the National Constituent Assembly (Assemblée nationale constituante), during the height of the French Revolution. Prepared and proposed by the marquis de Lafayette, the declaration asserted that all men "are born and remain free and equal in rights" and that these rights were universal. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen became a key human rights document and a classic formulation of the rights of individuals vis-a-vis the state. The Declaration exposed inconsistencies of laws that treated citizens differently on the basis of sex, race, class, or religion. In 1791, new articles were added to the French constitution which extended civil and political rights to Protestants and Jews, who had previously been persecuted in France.
In 1790, Nicolas de Condorcet and Etta Palm d'Aelders unsuccessfully called on the National Assembly to extend civil and political rights to women. Condorcet declared that "he who votes against the right of another, whatever the religion, color, or sex of that other, has henceforth adjured his own".
In October of 1789, women in the marketplaces of Paris, rioting over the high price and scarcity of bread, began to march to Versailles, often called The Women's March on Versailles. While not solely an attempt for the extension of natural and political rights to women, the demonstrators believed that equality among all French citizens would extend those rights to women, political minorities, and landless citizens. Although upon the march, the king acknowledged the changes associated with the French Revolution and no longer resisted such liberal reforms, the leaders of the Revolution failed to recognize that women were the largest force in the march, and did not extend natural rights to women.
In November of 1789, in response to both the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the failure of the National Assembly to recognize the natural and political rights of women, a group of women submitted a petition for the extension of egalité to women, referred to as the Women's Petition to the National Assembly. While thousands of petitions were repeatedly submitted to the National Assembly, this one was never brought up or discussed.
Personal Background of de Gouges
Olympe de Gouges was a French playwright and political activist whose feminist and abolitionist writings reached large audiences. She began her career as a playwright in the early 1780s, and as the political tensions of the French Revolution built, she became more involved in politics and law. Personally, de Gouges was born to a petit bourgeois family – she believed she was an illegitimate daughter, and her supposed biological father’s rejections of such claims might have influenced her later passionate defense of the rights of illegitimate children.
In 1773, de Gouges met a wealthy aristocrat with whom she had a relationship until the revolution began. According to her biographer (Olivier Blanc), de Gouges lived with several men throughout her life during the revolution who supported her financially. She strove to move among the aristocracy and to abandon her provincial accent. Upon the outbreak of the Revolution, Olympe de Gouges was filled with hope and joy for the great potential in the way of women’s rights. She was quickly disenchanted when the National Assembly (and later the Legislative Assembly) repeatedly denied women the extension of égalité.
As such, in 1791, she joined the Society of the Friends of Truth, an association with the goals of equal political and legal rights for women. Also called the “Social Club”, this club was seen as treasonous by the leaders of the Revolution, and although that was the case, they openly declared themselves republicans and sometimes even referred to themselves as utopian socialists.
De Gouges was a political conservative with allegiances divided between the monarchy and the National Assembly. In 1791, she demanded that the King's brothers return to France to silence rumors of international conspiracy. Later, in 1792, when King Louis XVI was tried for treason, she offered defense while proclaiming her republicanism - initially, the press mocker her, but her virulent attacks against Maximilien Robespierre turned the Jacobins against her.
The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen was published in 1791 and is modeled on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. Olympe de Gouges dedicated the text to Marie Antoinette, whom de Gouges described as "the most detested" of women. The Declaration is ironic in formulation. It states that "This revolution will only take effect when all women become fully aware of their deplorable condition, and of the rights they have lost in society".
The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen follows the seventeen articles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen point for point, and it has been described by Camille Naish as "almost a parody... of the original document".
Call to Action
De Gouges opens her Declaration with the famous quote, "Man, are you capable of being fair? A woman is asking: at least you will allow her that right. Tell me? What gave you the sovereign right to oppress my sex?" She demands that her reader observe nature and the rules of the animals surrounding them - in every other species, sexes coexist and intermingle peacefully and fairly. She asks why humans cannot act likewise and demands (in the preamble) that the National Assembly decree the Declaration a part of French law.
Preamble to the Declaration
In the preamble to her Declaration, de Gouges mirrors the language of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and explains that women, just as men, are guaranteed natural, inalienable, sacred rights - and that political institutions are instituted with the purpose of protecting these natural rights. She closes the preamble by declaring that "the sex that is superior in beauty as it is in courage during the pains of childbirth recognizes and declares, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen." 
Articles of the Declaration
The first article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen proclaims that "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on common utility." The first article of Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen responds: "Woman are born free and remains equal to man in rights. Social distinctions may only be based on common utility."
Article II and Article III
Articles II and III extend the articles in the Declaration of Independence to include both women and men in their statements.
Article IV declares that "the only limit to the exercise of the natural rights of woman is the perpetual tyranny that man opposes to it" and that "these limits must be reformed by the laws of nature and reason". In this statement, de Gouges is specifically stating that men have tyrannically opposed the natural rights of women, and that these limits must be reformed by the laws of a political organization in order to create a society that is just and protects the Natural Rights of all.
Article V is unchanged from the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
De Gouges expands the sixth article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which declared the rights of citizens to take part in the formation of law, to: "All citizens including women are equally admissible to all public dignities, offices and employments, according to their capacity, and with no other distinction than that of their virtues and talents."
Article V through Article IX
Articles V through IX again extend the articles in the Declaration of the Rights of Man to include both women and men in their statements.
In Article X, de Gouges draws attention to the fact that, under French law, women were fully punishable, yet denied equal rights, declaring: "Women have the right to mount the scaffold, they must also have the right to mount the speaker's rostrum". This statement would go on to be well-known and spread to wide audiences.
De Gouges declares, in Article XI, that a woman can identify the father of her child. Historians believe that this could relate to de Gouges upbringing as a possible illegitimate child, and allows women to demand support from fathers of illegitimate children.
This article explains that the declaration of these rights for women is a great benefit to society, and does not only benefit those protected by it. According to her biographer, Olivier Blanc, de Gouges maintained that this article be included to explain to men the benefit they would receive from support of this Declaration against the advice of the Society of the Friends of Truth.
Article XIII through Article XVI
Articles XIII through XVI extend the articles in the Declaration of the Rights of Man to include both women and men in their statements.
The seventeenth article of the Declaration expresses sexual equality of marriage, and that upon marriage, women and men are found equal in the eyes of the law - this means that upon divorce, property is split evenly between the involved parties, and property cannot be seized without reason from women (just as is the case for men).
Postscript to the Declaration
De Gouges opens her postscript to the Declaration with a declaration: "Woman, wake up; the tocsin of reason is resounding throughout the universe: acknowledge your rights." In her first paragraph, she implores women to consider what they have gained from the Revolution - "a greater scorn, a greater disdain." She maintains that men and women have everything in common, and that women must "unite under the banner of philosophy." She declares that whatever barriers women come up against, it is in their power to overcome those barriers and progress in society. She goes on to describe that "marriage is the tomb of trust and love" but fails to write laws that apply to unmarried women - she leaves this to men, but implores men to consider the morally correct thing to do when creating the framework for the education of women.
De Gouges then writes a framework social contract (borrowing from Rousseau) for men and women, and goes into details about the specifics of the legal ramifications and equality in marriage. In many ways, she reformulates Rousseau's Social Contract with a focus that obliterates the gendered conception of a citizen and creates the conditions that are necessary for both parties to flourish.
According to de Gouges's journal, what ails government are fixed social hierarchies that are impossible to maintain. What heals a government is an equal balance of powers and a shared virtue. This is consistent with her continuing approval of a constitutional monarchy. Marriages are to be voluntary unions by equal rights-bearing partners who hold property and children mutually and dispense of same by agreement. All children produced during this union have the right to their mother’s and father’s name, “from whatever bed they come.”
Reactions to the Declaration
In response to the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, many of the radicals of the Revolution immediately suspected de Gouges of treason. The Jacobins (led by Robespierre), upon seeing that the Declaration was addressed to the Queen, suspected de Gouges (as well as her allies in the Girondists) of being Royalists. After de Gouges attempted to post a note demanding a plebiscite to decide between three forms of government (which included a Constitutional monarchy), the Jacobins quickly tried and convicted her of treason. She was sentenced to execution by the guillotine, and was one of many "political enemies" to the state of France claimed by the Reign of Terror.
At the time of her death, the Parisian press no longer mockingly dismissed her as harmless. While journalists and writers argued that her programs and plans for France had been irrational, they also noted that in proposing them she had wanted to be a "statesman." Her crime, the Feuille du Salut public reported, was that she had "forgotten the virtues which belonged to her sex." In the misogynistic environment of Jacobian Paris, her feminism and political meddlings were a dangerous combination.
De Gouges was a strict critic of the principle of equality touted in Revolutionary France because it gave no attention to who it left out, and she worked to claim the rightful place of women and slaves within its protection. By writing numerous plays about the topics of black and women's rights and suffrage, the issues she brought up were spread not only through France, but also throughout Europe and the newly created United States of America.
Reactions in Other Countries
In the UK, Mary Wollstonecraft was prompted to write A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects in 1792. This was in response to both de Gouges' Declaration as well as Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord's 1791 address to the French National Assembly, which stated that women should only a receive a domestic education. Wollstonecraft wrote the Rights of Woman to launch a broad attack against sexual double standards and to indict men for encouraging women to indulge in excessive emotion.
As opposed to de Gouges, Wollstonecraft does call for equality between the sexes in particular areas of life but does not explicitly state that men and women are equal. Her ambiguous statements regarding the equality of the sexes have made it difficult to classify Wollstonecraft as a modern feminist. Rights of Woman was relatively well received in 1792 England.
United States of America
While there were no immediate effects in the United States upon publishing of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman, it was used extensively in the modeling of the Declaration of Sentiments, written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others at the Seneca Falls Convention, held in the summer of 1848. The Declaration of Sentiments, much like the Declaration of the Rights of Woman was written in the style of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, was written in the style of the Declaration of Independence of the United States.
Much of the belief that de Gouges was the center of a Royalist conspiracy stemmed from her involvement with multiple wealthy aristocrats and her desires to rid herself of her provincial accent. Upon posting her note demanding the plebiscite, the Jacobins discovered a partially complete play written by de Gouges parodying the Revolution - the play begins with the Revolutionaries (including de Gouges) demanding rights; the only Act completed, Act I, ends with de Gouges lecturing Marie Antoinette and teaching her ways to govern. The Jacobins, in an effort to find evidence that de Gouges was treasonous, fabricated a conspiracy surrounding this play and the Declaration that de Gouges, in fact, was desiring to overthrow the Revolution.
In her Declaration, de Gouges is forceful and sarcastic in tone and militant in spirit. Meant to be a document ensuring universal rights, The Declaration of the Rights of Man is exposed as anything but. For de Gouges, the most important expression of liberty was the right to free speech; she had been exercising that right her whole life. Access to the rostrum was another question, and one that she demanded be put at the forefront of the discussion about women's rights and suffrage.
The Enlightenment's presumption of the natural rights of humans (or inalienable rights as in the United States Declaration of Independence) is in direct contradiction with the beliefs of natural sexual inequality (sometimes called the "founding principles of nature"). The rights the equality of the French Declaration states, but does not intend, implies, according to de Gouges, the need to be recognized as having a more far-reaching application; if rights are natural and if these rights are somehow inherent in bodies, then all bodies are deserving of such rights, regardless of any particularities like gender or race.
De Gouges generally agreed with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his understanding of how education of a nation could transform the society in which that nation resided. However, seeing well beyond Rousseau in terms of gender, she argued that the failure of society to educate its women was the sole cause of corruption in government. Her social contract, a direct appropriation of Rousseau, proclaims that the right in marriage to equal property and parental and inheritance rights is the only way to build a society of harmony.
At the time of the French Revolution, the marriage was the center for political exploitation. In her Social Contract, de Gouges describes marriage as the "tomb of trust and love" and the place of "perpetual tyranny." The singly most common site of institutionalized gender inequality, marriage creates the conditions for the development women's unreliability and capacity for deception. In her Social Contract, many similarities to movements around the world become apparent.
Similarly to how Mary Wollstonecraft explains marriage in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), de Gouges points to female artifice and weakness as a consequence of woman's powerless place in it. De Gouges, much like Wollstonecraft, attempts to combat societal and educational deficiencies: the vicious cycle which neglects to educate its females and then offers their narrower interests as the reason for the refusal of full citizenship. Both, however, see the resulting fact of women’s "corruption and weak-mindedness" as a major source of the problems of society - and therein lies the solution, as well.
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