How Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges Argued for Equality In Proto-Feminist Pamphlets

A rendering of the Women’s March on Versailles in October 1789. (Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France via Wikimedia Commons)

In the late eighteenth century, as Frenchmen debated the best course for their country, women argued that they too should be recognized as political equals, and not the dependents of their male relatives. This period of debate in the early years of the French Revolution saw the proliferation of women’s advocacy efforts. Bourgeois women formed political clubs to campaign for divorce and other legal benefits. Working-class women called for market regulation and fair prices on food. And famously, some women marched on Versailles in October 1789 (see image above) and compelled the king and National Assembly to return to Paris, thus putting them in close contact to the French Revolution’s leading reformers.

Because printing written texts was fairly inexpensive thanks to technological advancements, women also authored political pamphlets and periodicals. Two of the most famous examples of these Revolution-inspired feminist critiques were penned by the French writer Olympe de Gouges and the British thinker Mary Wollstonecraft, who has come to be known as the “founder” of modern Anglophone feminist thought. These texts, de Gouges’s “The Rights of Women” (1791) and Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” (1792), employ remarkably similar strategies to justify why women deserve the same political rights that men were obtaining in the reforms of the French Revolution.

First, both Wollstonecraft’s text and de Gouges’s text argue that women’s natural state is one of freedom and liberty, and any laws that suggest otherwise are the work of men, not nature. “Woman is born free,” writes de Gouges, later adding, “the only limit to the exercise of the natural rights of woman is the perpetual tyranny that man opposes to it.” Wollstonecraft’s text, written in response to plans by a French reformer to limit French women’s education to a minimal one focused on domestic responsibilities, also claimed that women have the same inalienable rights as man and that “if women are to be excluded, without having a voice, from a participation of the natural rights of mankind,” French reformers must provide evidence for why they should leave women out.

Building off this point, de Gouges’s “Rights” and Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication” claim that the seeming “nature of women” is actually a product of being disenfranchised politically — a very early iteration of the “social construction” argument used by feminists today. Both “Rights” and “Vindication” identify certain stereotypical characteristics ascribed to “female nature” during the late eighteenth century: deceitfulness, the inability to exercise reason, ignorance, weakness. The texts then go on to argue that these tendencies are not the product of some kind of essential female nature, but of being excluded from the education and freedom their male counterparts enjoyed. In order to retain some agency for themselves, women had to resort then less-than-noble means, de Gouges writes: “Women have done more harm than good. Constraint and dissimulation have been their lot. What force stole from them, ruse returned; they had to resort to the power of their charms and the most irreproachable man could not resist.” But by noting these negative traits, “Rights” and “Vindication” set themselves up to make a strong defense against counter-arguments along the lines of women do not deserve full rights because they want reason.

Finally, de Gouges and Wollstonecraft give their pro-equality arguments an even more persuasive rationale: the subjugation of women weakens a country as a whole, therefore granting equality to women serves the common good. Writing with this proto-utilitarian bent, Wollstonecraft argues that with education and political rights, women will be better at fulfilling their responsibilities as mothers, wives, and daughters:

[I]f she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice. And how can woman be expected to co-operate unless she knows why she ought to be virtuous? unless freedom strengthens her reason till she comprehend her duty, and see in what manner it is connected with her real good?

“Rights” by de Gouges makes a similar version of this argument, whose subtext suggests that if women have duties, they also deserve rights in order to fulfill those duties: “[T]he demands of female citizens, founded henceforth on simple and incontestable principles, will always revolve around the maintenance of the constitution, of sound morals, and of the happiness of all.”

During their time, these two treatises enjoyed considerable popularity among sympathizers of gender equality. De Gouges was a major figure among female reformers during the French Revolution and continued to be so until, having upset the leading French reform faction, she was executed by guillotine in November 1793. Wollstonecraft’s proto-feminist ideas enjoyed popularity in both Great Britain and America, with other progressive thinkers writing responses weighing the merits of various points made in “Vindication.” But her notability waned after her untimely death in 1797, in large part because Wollstonecraft’s grief-stricken husband in 1798 published a memoir about his wife revealing that they had a premarital sexual relationship, making Wollstonecraft a figure too controversial to be touted by progressives at that time.

Though the French Revolution slogan “liberté, égalité, fraternité” makes the political movement’s masculinist preferences evident, the progressive spirit of the age influenced both Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges to write feminist treatises whose ideas and arguments have been foundational for subsequent generations of feminists.

Want essays sent to your inbox? Sign up for Tara’s newsletter Essay Major, a curated selection of great essays languishing in archives. Essays by other writers, mini-analysis by Tara.

Philadelphia-based essayist. 2019 NBCC fellow. More info at: membership.bookcritics.org/emerging-critics/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store