Olympe de Gouges: Rights, marriage and ‘the tomb of trust and love’

The illustration designed by Claude-Louis Desray ou Desrais and engraved by C. Frussotte

Contributor: Helene Grøn

Location: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

Description: Amid commotion, two hands meet in the handing over of a pamphlet. One belongs to playwright and social reformer Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793), the other to La Reine, the queen Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793). The title of the engraving is given variously as Louis xvi à son peuple (Louis XVI to his people) and Olympe de Gouges remettant sa Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne à Marie-Antoinette’ (Olympe de Gouges delivering her Rights of Woman to Marie-Antoinette). One title focuses on the king, reclining somewhat nonchalantly a carriage drawn by a ‘regal cock and a docile ewe’ (Cole 2011, 47), where the other places the women centre stage. De Gouges’ Déclaration is written in response to the French Assembly’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man. While its main aim is to make women equal citizens, de Gouges also tackles the question of love more directly by opposing religious marriage and calling the institution ‘the tomb of trust and love’ (2012, 254). The second title underscores that for de Gouges, there is little separation of the public and the private spheres when ‘the publicly protected rights of women reach into the household and the bedroom’ (Cole 2011, 141).

The illustration was designed by Claude-Louis Desray ou Desrais and engraved by C. Frussotte. It was used as a frontispiece to de Gouges’ earliest political pamphlet, the 1788 Remarques Patriotique (Blanc 1981, 113), wherein she puts forward a patriotic tax reform (Cole 2011, 46). In later years, this more imaginative title has taken its place, so much so that, among other places, the introductory page to the online archival document of the Déclaration shows the engraving, and on the Bibiliotéque Nationale’s Gallica blog, where this object is held, the engraving is said to show de Gouge handing over her Déclaration. It is unlikely that the document passing between the queen and this self-taught, pseudonymed femme de lettres is the first ‘European women’s right manifesto’ (Gålmark 2021). The Déclaration was published in September 1791 (Mousset 2007, 63), while date for the engraving is given as variously as 1789 and 1790. And yet, where Patriotic Remarks introduces the queen as ‘something of an afterthought’ (Cole 2011, 46), the Déclaration is dedicated ‘A la Reine’ (Gouges 1791), after which, with all the airs of a manifesto, she calls to ‘Mothers, daughters, sisters’ (Gouges 2012, 249) to stand up and assert themselves as politically representable and rights-bearing. De Gouges is famous, in part, for the cross-pollination and public life of her work: her ‘theatre was political [and] her political pamphlets were increasingly theatrical’ (Vanpée 1999, 56). From Remarks to Rights, from plays to politics, de Gouges was well versed in ‘representing herself in her political pamphlets’ (50).

De Gouges was largely ‘left out of dictionaries and history books’ (Mousset 2007, 1), perhaps because her texts do not ‘suggest a given reading [her] political texts oscillate; sometimes they are progressive, sometimes conservative’ (Gålmark 2021). Given her dramatic life, it is astonishing to ‘wonder how so much silence could have replaced so much resonance’ (Monselet 1991, 112). This lively and allegorical engraving perhaps sounds some of this silence by placing her not within the context that the French Revolution gave to women’s rights (Racz 1952, 151), but prevalence of the second title also shows de Gouges as a figure of continual revision and interpretation, who is placed here within the resonance and drama of her work. It is one thing, then, to view this object as a frontispiece to a quasi-patriotic pamphlet; it is a whole other to look at it through the lens of the Déclaration. If the latter, one might dwell at the regal codification of Louis XVI – his clothes, the fleur-de-lis sceptre and the crown suspended somewhat God-ordained above him. To his right, Marie-Antoinette stands with one hand on the pamphlet, the other on the tree from which by the ‘wonder-working queen’s touch […] fruit comes raining down on kneeling subjects’ (Cole 2011, 47). Even if ‘it was reckless to associate herself so closely with these royals in this season’ (2011, 65), and even if it is the King that is given voice in the engraving’s subtitle, it is the queen, the playwright and the passing of the text that seem the central characters. This brief moment hints at muted dialogue or mutual understanding between someone who could imagine an expansion of human rights, and someone who, at least in the allegorical world of the engraving, might have had the power to make it reality.

Does love happen in the Déclaration? The Assembly’s Déclaration employs Enlightenment reasoning and the language of natural rights to propose the equality of Man, this ‘abstract individual’ (Scott 1989, 2), who remains a puzzling figure at the core of human rights. Rights are often thought to be embodied, ‘indelibly imprinted on human minds and hearts’ (Scott 1989, 2), and yet, the connection between heart, body and rights is anything but straightforward even in current discourse. De Gouges’ Déclaration does not solve this, but takes a more universalist approach by rewriting the articles to include rights of those omitted by the Assembly, like women, the poor and those enslaved by France’s colonial expansion. If ‘Love is a political event […] creating the human by exfoliating its social skin’ (Povinelli 2006, 175–76) , then love certainly happens in the Déclaration: apart from asserting the rights for the rightless, apart from marriage entombing love, Elizabeth Brake’s question of whether ‘love and legal [or religious] institutions are incompatible’ (2017) is answered by de Gouges’ proposal for a social contract in lieu of marriage. This contract ends the Déclaration, and can be signed by two agreeing parties who wish to share their financial, parental and emotional duties for ‘the duration of [their] mutual inclinations’ (Gouges 2012, 254). Even if making rights and love compatible might seem unromantic, de Gouges suggest that for love to happen in its passionate and romantic forms, equality has to be secured by contractual agreement.

Date: 1789/1790

Creator: Claude-Louis Desray ou Desrais (design) and by C. Frussotte (engraver)

 Media rights: Public domain: “The non-commercial use of the documents is free and free in compliance with the legislation in force and in particular the maintenance of the source mention: BnF or National Library of France”

 Object type: Engraving

 Format: 14 x 8,5 cm

 Publisher: BnF, National Library of France

 Catalogue Number: Appartient à l’ensemble documentaire : Est18Rev1, ark:/12148/btv1b6941702h


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———. 2012. “Fourty-Four: Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793).” In Transatlantic Feminism in the Age of Revolutions, edited by Lisa L. Moore, Joanna Brooks, and Caroline Wigginton, 245–56.

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