Showing posts with label french revolution. Show all posts
Showing posts with label french revolution. Show all posts

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Damn, Girl-Olympe de Gouges

Olympe de Gouges was essentially the French Mary Wollstonecraft, if Mary Wollstonecraft had been a pacifist who published inflammatory material during one of the most violent times in history. Abolitionist, feminist, and children's rights activist, Olympe de Gouges fought for the rights of the disenfranchised during the height of the Reign of Terror through her pamphlets and plays. Though she remained a semi-loyal monarchist until her death, her writing was a big part of the French Revolution, and her writings on gender and racial equality continue to influence civil rights thinkers to this day.

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Olympe de Gouges
Olympe was born Marie Gouze in the French town of Montauban. The daughter of a butcher and a lady's maid, Olympe was given a cursory education, and was raised speaking the regional language of Occitan. Not much is known about her early life, but it is known that at age 17 she married Louis Aubrey, an officer in the French Army who was much older than her. Their marriage was short lived, with Aubrey dying only a few years later. While Marie and Louis did have a son, it was evidently an unhappy marriage, because after Louis died Marie moved to Paris, changed her name, and vowed never to marry again.¹

 Now named Olympe de Gouges--a mash up of her mother's first name and father's last name-- Marie set about trying to become a writer. Though she wasn't well read, and didn't have the most thorough of educations, Olympe was hardworking and determined By 1778 she had had her first play published.

One of Olympe's favorite mediums was the theater. She wrote around 40 plays, twelve of which survive, ten of which were published, and only 4 of which were ever produced. Writing exclusively for the Comédie Française, Olympe had to deal with the sexism of Comédie Française producers and actors, which severely hindered the publication and production of her plays during her lifetime.

Olympe's plays adhere to the proud tradition of theater as activism. Her plays covered the controversial subjects of the time--slavery, divorce, the immorality of debt imprisonment, political extremism, and inequality of the sexes. One of her plays, L'Esclavage de Nègres, ou l'Heureux naufrage [Black Slavery or the Happy Shipwreck] was sabotaged by both performers and outside protesters because of its controversial advocation for the freedom of African slaves.

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Dedication page of The Declaration of
the Rights of Women
Around the time of her arrival in Paris, rumors started flying that Olympe was the illegitimate daughter of the Marquis de Pompignan, or King Louis XV. While most likely untrue, these rumors gave Olympe access to the higher echelons of pre-Revolution French society. It was here where Olympe found patronage, and made friendships among the nobility that would influence her moderate, soft-monarchist views.

Olympe believed that a monarchy was essential to a country's survival, but she didn't believe in the French monarchy of the time. She repeatedly warned and entreated the House of Bourbon to treat its citizens, especially the women better. Her seminal work The Declaration of the Rights of Woman was even dedicated to Queen Marie-Antoinette, in hopes that the Queen would identify with Olympe's writing as a woman, and move for political change.

The Declaration of the Rights of Women was a direct, rage filled response to the glaring omission of women and women's rights in The Declaration of the Rights of Man. In it, Olympe revised the declaration, and gave specific rights to women that echoed the same rights assigned to men. In it, she also advocated for a revision of the marriage contract, and wrote her own marriage contracted which brought two people together in an equal union where property and children were shared.

Loyalty to the monarchy aside, Olympe's real loyalty lay with France. She abhorred violence, and believed that war was a violation of the social contract between nation and citizen. She repeatedly advocated for peaceful methods of resistance, and her thinking influenced the great activists of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Olympe was considered a political moderate for her time, though being a moderate during the French Revolution isn't really saying much by today's standards. She often satirized political extremism in her writing, and condemned the political violence happening during the revolution. However, moderate or no, Olympe did eventually end up on the side of the revolution.

It was after the revolution that Olympe's writing switched from plays to pamphlet's, and her work became dangerously political. Her assertions that injustice against women was the root of societies ills, and criticisms of The Declaration of the Rights of Man brought her to the attention of the revolution. Her advocacy for equality of the sexes, and criticisms of Revolution leaders led to her imprisonment, trial, and eventual execution.

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The execution of Olympe de Gouges
Though she was executed for crimes against the revolution, Olympe was, in no way, unsuccessful. Not only has she had a lasting legacy, but she was successful in her own time. She heavily petitioned for the right to divorce through plays and pamphlets, and in 1792 France was the first country to legalize divorce. Civil rights were also given to illegitimate children, and a voluntary tax system proposed and outlined by Olympe was also adopted.

But not only successful in her own time, Olympe's legacy has impacted the world for generations. Along with Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe was one of the founding mothers of feminism. She encouraged women to band together, and identify as women, something that has influenced the modern idea of citizenship. Her work is studied among philosophers and feminists theorists today.



¹I have been unable to find any information on Olympe's son--Pierre Aubry de Gouges-- during this time. Whether or not he went to Paris with her is unknown, however he did end up serving as a General with the French Army in South America. If you have any further information about him, please share in the comments!

More on Similar Topics



Sources
Olympe de Gouges Biography
Marie Olympe de Gouges Facts
Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793)
Welcome to Olympe de Gouges
Olympe de Gouges--French Writer

Friday, July 28, 2017

Damn, Girl-Chevaliere d'Eon de Beaumont

The Chevaliere*, or Chevalier, depending on who you ask, d'Eon was one of the most colorful figures of the 18th century. Assigned male at birth, and named Charles Genieveve Louisa Auguste Andre Timothee de Beaumont, the Chevaliere is notable for her service in the french military, for being a spy, and for coming out as a female, and living as Lia de Beaumont in the latter part of her life. She was a free mason, a champion fencer, a lawyer, a decorated war hero, and a celebrated author.

Image result for Chevalier d'eonIt was 1755 and, no surprise, the French were scheming. Relations with England were growing uneasy, and King Louis was attempting to put his cousin on the Polish throne. The Russian Empress, Elizabeth, refused to meet with any French ambassadors, and the French government was actively working against itself. It was this environment that the Chevaliere first got her start.

The Chevaliere was sent with the French diplomatic mission to Russia under the guise of a lowly secretary. The truth of her mission, however, was much more complex than that. d'Eon was there as part of le Secret du Roi--Louis' secret spy agency that was so secret, most of the French government didn't know about it. At the time of the Chevaliere's service, the group was dedicated to helping Louis put his cousin on the Polish throne, essentially giving France control of Poland. d'Eon's mission was to get the good will of Empress Elizabeth. There was just one problem, the Empress refused to see any of the French diplomats.

So the Chevaliere and the people back in Versailles put their heads together, and came up with a brilliant idea. d'Eon would be disguised as a woman, and infiltrate the court of the Empress that way. The idea was that Empress Elizabeth would be more open to speaking with a female French diplomat. They were absolutely right.

Seven years later the Seven Years War is going poorly for France. d'Eon left Russia to serve as a dragoon in the French army. She was the Secretary to the French ambassador, and she must have been very helpful at the peace talks between France and Britain, because she was later awarded the honor of the Order of St. Louis, which, I have been told, is a big deal.

After being decorated, d'Eon was sent to London to assist the current French ambassador to England, the Comte de Guerchy. Unfortunately, the pair did not get on. d'Eon's overspending, and her insubordination made her a liability, and she was recalled by the French government in 1763.

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Had the Chevaliere returned to France as ordered, she most likely would have been thrown in the Bastile or worse. That was an unattractive option for d'Eon, so she decided to blackmail the French government. d'Eon was still a member of le Secret du Roi, and was in possession of certain sensitive information. Since the end of the Seven Years War the French had given up their ambitions in Poland, and were working towards an invasion of England. The Chevaliere threatened to expose the duplicity of the French government if they didn't assign her a pension, and let her live in peace.

The French government was, understandably, a tad uneasy about this arrangement, and were delaying their decisions. To hurry them up, and show that she meant business, the Chevaliere published her first tell-all book, filled with secret correspondence she had received as a spy. She promised that more would follow.

France quickly acquiesced to her demands, and d'Eon became an overnight celebrity. Her book was incredibly popular, but it was the mystery surrounding her gender that really had the English people hooked. See, the Chevaliere continued to dress up in women's clothes, even after quitting the court of Empress Elizabeth. She maintained a sense of mystery about her gender, to the point where people made bets about whether or not she was a boy or a girl. d'Eon herself refused to say.

After fifteen years in England, France reached out an olive branch. d'Eon would be allowed to return home on the condition that she assume the role and appropriate clothing of her gender. the Chevaliere jumped on the opportunity, and went back to France.

However, the transition was difficult for her. She wanted to keep her dragoon's uniform as a symbol of political power, and to maintain the same amount of political influence that she had before. The French government wasn't too keen on this. Several times she was forceably dressed in female clothes, and her political opinions were consistently ignored. She was, essentially pushed to the side, and in 1785 she moved back to England.

d'Eon was able to live off her pension for a while, but in 1789 the French monarchy was abolished, and the Chevaliere was left without a source of income. To support herself, she gave swordsmanship exhibitions, wearing her Cross of St. Louis, and branding herself as an Amazon. The English people welcomed her back with open arms, but as the Chevaliere grew older she grew increasingly more isolated. When an injury made her stop fencing in 1796 she moved into a flat with another old woman, and rarely left her home after.

Image result for Chevalier d'eonAfter her death it was, of course, discovered that the Chevaliere possessed male genitalia. This news, of course shocked the world. Most people believed the Chevaliere to be female, and there had even been court cases that confirmed this, the most convincing argument being that the Chevaliere said she was female.

And there is a large amount of evidence saying that the Chevaliere truly identified as a woman, and that it wasn't a guise she adopted for social and diplomatic purposes. The Chevaliere experienced a religious awakening in her later life, and affirmed that not only did she believe herself to be a woman, but that God had told her she was a woman.

Historian's today waver about d'Eon's sexuality, but d'Eon knew d'Eon best. If she said she was a woman then she was a woman, and while today's gender politics are very different from gender politics of the past, the fact remains that d'Eon identified as a woman, and that identity should be respected.

Gender identity aside, d'Eon was an amazing woman. She was a talented and capable diplomat, and excellent writer, and a colorful person.

*A note on pronouns: since the Chevaliere maintained that she was a woman for most of her life, I have used feminine pronouns to refer to her here. No one would know the gender of the Chevaliere better than the Chevaliere herself, and on while the Chevaliere hasn't appeared to me in a dream saying that she prefers she/her pronouns, it is reasonable to assume that female pronouns are the appropriate pronouns to use when writing about her.

More on Similar Topics




Sources
Chevalier d'Eon de Beaumont
d'Eon, the Fresh Face
Charles, chevalier d'Eon de Beaumont
The Incredible Chevalier d'Eon, Who Left France as a Male Spy, and Returned a Christian Woman
The Chevalier d'Eon