She is a French playwright and political activist whose feminist and abolitionist writings were prevalent during the French Revolution.
Today she is perhaps best known as an early feminist who demanded that French women be given the same rights as French men. In her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791), she challenged the practice of male authority and the notion of male–female inequality.
She was executed by guillotine during the Reign of Terror for attacking the regime of the Revolutionary government and for her close relation with the Girondists.
In she began her own career as a public intellectual, and over the remaining nine years of her life she wrote some forty works - essays, manifestos, literary treatises, political pamphlets and socially-conscious plays. She also edited a newsletter, Lettre au Peuple (Letter to the People), in which she developed a series of social reforms.
In 1784, she wrote the anti-slavery playZamore and Mirza inwhich she denounced the economics behind slavery and supported its abolition. For several reasons, the play was not performed until 1789. De Gouges published it, however, asZamore et Mirza, ou l’heureux naufrage(“Zamore and Mirza, or the happy shipwreck”) in 1788. It was performed asL’Esclavage des nègres (“Slavery of the negroes”) in December of 1789, but shut down after three performances. Subsequently, it was published in 1792 under the title L’Esclavage des noirs. As an epilogue to the 1788 version of her play Zamore et Mirza, she published Réflexions sur les hommes nègres (“Reflections on the negroes”). In 1790 she wrote a play, Le Marché des Noirs (“The Black Market”) which was rejected by the Comédie Française; the text was burned after her death.
She also wrote on such gender-related topics as the right of divorce and argued in favour of sexual relations outside of marriage, as well as campaigned in favour of a system of civil partnerships that would replace religious marriage.
She greeted the outbreak of the Revolution with hope and joy, but soon became disenchanted when égalité (equal rights) was not extended to women.
In 1791, she became part of the Society of the Friends of Truth, an association with the goal of equal political and legal rights for women. Also called the “Social Club”, members sometimes gathered at the home of the well-known women’s rights advocate, Sophie de Condorcet.Here, De Gouges expressed, for the first time, her famous statement, "A woman has the right to mount the scaffold. She must possess equally the right to mount the speaker’s platform."
That same year, in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, she wrote the Déclaration des droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne (“Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen”).
This was followed by her Contrat Social (“Social Contract”, named after a famous work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau), proposing marriage based upon gender equality.
She became involved in almost any matter she believed to involve injustice. She opposed the execution of Louis XVI of France, partly out of opposition to capital punishment and partly because she preferred a relatively tame and living king to the possibility of a rebel regency in exile.
However, her audacity proved too much for some – and Robespierre in particular, whom she had publicly accused of tyranny. She was arrested and sentenced to death in 1793. As she walked up to the guillotine, she declared: “Children of the fatherland, you will avenge my death.”
As the Revolution progressed, she became more and more vehement in her writings. Finally, her poster Les trois urnes, ou le salut de la Patrie, par un voyageur aérien (“The Three Urns, or the Salvation of the Fatherland, By An Aerial Traveller”) of 1793, led to her arrest. That piece demanded a plebiscite for a choice among three potential forms of government: the first, indivisible republic, the second, a federalist government, or the third, a constitutional monarchy.
After she was arrested, the commissioners searched her house for evidence. When they could not find any in her home, she voluntarily led them to the storehouse where she kept her papers. It was there that the commissioners found an unfinished play titled La France Sauvée ou le Tyran Détroné(“France Preserved, or The Tyrant Dethroned”).
She spent three months in jail without an attorney, trying to defend herself. The presiding judge denied De Gouges her legal right to a lawyer, on the grounds that she was more than capable of representing herself. It seems as though the judge based this argument on De Gouges’s tendency to represent herself in her writings.
Through her friends, she managed to publish two texts: Olympe de Gouges au tribunal révolutionnaire (“Olympe de Gouges at the revolutionary tribunal”), where she related her interrogations and her last work, Une patriote persécutée (“A [female] patriot persecuted”), where she condemned the Terror.