This book was sent to me by the publisher (Hachette, in Australia) at no cost. It’s available today ($19.99, hard back).
Olympe de Gouges is something of a hero for me, and I’ve longed for a biography on her – there’s a French bio from the mid-90s, but as far as I can tell it’s not been translated. This isn’t the bio I’ve been wanting but it does present her manifesto, along with illustrations and the UN’s Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and excerpts about women’s right from decades of writing.
This delightful little book calls her “the most important figure for women’s rights you’ve never heard of,” which is a crime. In 1789 the National Assembly in France wrote the Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen, drawing on the American Declaration of Independence and having a massive impact 150 years later on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. De Gouges wrote the Declaration of Rights of Woman and the Citizeness in response. It was ignored by the men in charge and she died as part of the Terror, in 1793.
Each of the articles is presented on a page with a facing illustration. The next page has quotes from various luminaries, mostly French – these quotes sometimes relate directly to the article they follow, although not always, which I found a little frustrating. The thing is, though, that the articles de Gouges was putting forward are not actually all about ‘women’s rights’ as such – that is, access to divorce and contraception, for example, aren’t at the top of the list. Instead what she’s doing, and what is quite radical, is she’s reframing the articles from DORMAC… with feminine pronouns. So Article 7 says: “No woman is exempt; she is accused, arrested, and detained in cases determined by law. Women, like men, obey this rigourous law.” Her point is that women are, and should be treated as, equally capable of being citizens. WHAT an idea. (This from a time when only one of the political clubs allowed women to be members – and that was part of what made it radical; women-only political clubs were shut down as part of a conservative reaction.) Oh she also wants women to have access to public office and to voting… yeh, first-wave feminism was not the 19th/20th century suffrage activists: it was de Gouges and Wollstonecraft.
Here’s my main complaint, though: each of the articles is illustrated, which I think is lovely; there’s also an image for the prelude and postlude, so 19 images in all. One of those is credited to two artists, a man and a woman. Of the remaining 18, ten of the images are by men. So in this book celebrating women’s right, they couldn’t find enough French women to get more than half of the illustrations done by them? I’m quite disappointed.
Overall this is a long overdue tribute to a clearly brilliant woman. Now someone write a biography and I’ll be happy.