A butcher and his wife in Montauban, France, celebrated the birth of a daughter, Marie Gouza, in 1748. She was educated about as much as a petit bourgeoise should be and then at 17 was married to a caterer from Paris. It was not a love match, so when he died a year later, Marie – not at all heartbroken – took her baby son and left for Paris.
Marie changed her name to Olympe de Gouges and found a wealthy protector, the first of many she would live with and rely on financially. Somehow she parlayed her minimal education into a career as a playwright and pamphleteer. found entrée to the salons of a countess and a marquise. She espoused abolitionist causes, women’s rights and free love.
She attended the salon of Sophie de Condorcet, wife of the Marquis de Condorcet, famous philosopher and scientist and most prominent Girondist. Eventually, Olympe became associated with the group.
The Girondists were the intellectual wing of the revolutionaries who were calling for an end to the monarchy. The Girondists – so-called because they came from the Gironde area of southwest France – were also for the most part abolitionists and also deists. Thomas Paine, drawn to France by the revolutionary fervor, was a Girondist and was actually elected to the National Assembly, even though he didn’t speak French.
De Gouges was both inspired and offended by the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the manifesto of the revolution introduced to the assembly by the Marquis de Lafayette. In response she wrote her most famous pamphlet, the Declaration of the Rights of Women.
Like other Girondists, Olympe de Gouges opposed the execution of the king, an attitude that ran afoul of Robespierre and during the Reign of Terror she was one of many enemies Robespierre disposed of. The official excuse was that she opposed the death penalty and she was sent to the guillotine on Nov. 3.
Of the two dozen Girondists who were executed, only Thomas Paine escaped the terror and that by a complete fluke. He was in prison, in a cell with four others, and very ill. A guard came by, marking doors with chalk to indicate the executions for the next day. Paine’s cell door was open and when the other prisoners later closed it, the chalk mark was obscured.
Paine survived the next few days and by that time, Robespierre himself had been arrested and executed.
Paine returned to the US at Jefferson’s invitation, and lived to the age of 72. When he died, only six mourners attended his funeral. He had been shunned for many years because of his ridicule of Christianity.
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It could be worse: on November 4, 1980, Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in a landslide.