Why De Gouges Matters

For all of the plays, pamphlets, manifestos and speeches Olympe de Gouges wrote during her short life, she is probably most famous for declaring Jean-Paul Marat "the abortion of the world."

We could read this statement polemically: however many revolutionary ideas Marat held, however diligently he militated against the monarchy, however crucial his paper to the success of the revolution, he was still no friend of the struggle for women's suffrage. Many thus read Gouges' statement as a wholesale rejection of Marat and his legacy. A sexist revolutionary is not a revolutionary.

But perhaps we might be better served by reading this statement historically, by depersonalizing the signifier "Marat." After Marat's murder by Charlotte Corday, there was a massive backlash against the participation of women in politics. Corday's actions were taken as evidence that women were just as irrational, feeble-minded, confused, and impetuous as we'd always been told. Unable to engage in rational debate over lofty political principles, it was argued, their participation will devolve into senseless violence.

Is it not thus true that Marat, in this light, was less an individual than an event, and that the 'abortion of the world' Olympe de Gouges names is rather the violent foreclosure of the burgeoning possibility of a new world of equality and emancipation? Is it not Marat-the-event that killed the nascent possibility of women's suffrage? At the very least, it certainly sounded the death-knell of this dream in the Revolutionary period.

For Olympe de Gouges, then, political and historical figures are not personalities to be reviled or venerated, but rather representations of structures and processes. Marx (who also has a birthday this week) would later echo this idea: 'Men [and women!] make their own history, but not always as they choose.' As history is the dialectical relation of individual will and objective compulsion, the subject cannot be the self-contained fully autonomous mini-god that capitalist ideology requires. And if, in thinking about Marat, Olympe de Gouges found it more important to focus on the structural element of the subjective, on her 265th birthday, I hope I might repay the favor.  Rather than tell the narrative of her life so we might claim a space for her in the museum of dead revolutionaries, I'd like instead to ask the question: what relevance does Olympe de Gouges' legacy carry for us today? What is the contemporary meaning of the event we call Olympe de Gouges?

We find ourselves two and a half centuries after her, in a very different world. Olympe de Gouges found herself in the midst of a revolution, in the moment of a new founding, in which everything seemed up for revision, in which the normal "rules of the game" were being completely rewritten. On the contrary, despite the vast achievements and tireless work of activists and academics alike, we find ourselves in a situation that appears intractable, in which, we are told, the rules of the game have become so sedimented that the best we can hope for are small victories and gradual reforms.

Olympe de Gouges also found herself militating for legal recognition. Article X of her Declaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne stages one of the fundamental contradictions of the Revolution: “la femme a le droit de monter sur l ’échafaud; elle doit avoir également celui de monter à la Tribune” [Women have the right to mount the scaffold; they must also have the right to mount the podium]. The contradiction to which Olympe de Gouges points here is one of a material equality (without regard to sex, we all go to the guillotine, as she herself would in 1793) and a formal inequality (in the age of the new "universal' democracy," the right to speak politically is determined exclusively in regard to sex).

The feminist struggle it seems now is rather about the inverse contradiction: women might enjoy formal equality before bourgeois law but in nearly every aspect of life are subject to vast material inequality. The contradiction of patriarchal capitalism was not, as liberals believe, liquidated or overcome in the preceding decades and centuries; it rather has been turned on its head.

So what might be the continued relevance of Olympe de Gouges' legacy, a woman who lived long ago and whose struggle seems so different from ours?

The french philosopher Jacques Rancière argues that Olympe de Gouges remains a necessary coordinate for contemporary discourse because she reveals the very form (though not, we should be clear, the formula) of politics itself. In Rancière's essay, “Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?”, he argues that Olympe de Gouges rediscovers politics as the staging of a contradiction when she realizes that “women could make a twofold demonstration. They could demonstrate that they were deprived of the rights that they had, thanks to the Declaration of Rights. And they could demonstrate, through their public action, that they had the rights that the constitution denied to them, that they could enact those rights." 

In arguing that women ought to have the vote, de Gouges stages the contradiction of her time such that what was previously unspeakable, unthinkable, inaudible -- strictly speaking, impossible -- becomes real. It was accepted ontological truth that women by definition could not engage in the kind of rational argumentation she presents in the vast array of speeches, pamphlets, and treatises she authored. De Gouges thus became the impossible, the woman who embodied all that she could not possibly be.

It was not simply that de Gouges pointed to the contradiction; she enacted it. She became the very thing she was told she could not be: a writer of Enlightenment philosophy, a crafter of political documents, a rational human being engaged in discourse over principles and strategy. So many of her writings mirror the form of her male contemporaries for precisely this reason (her Contract Sociale is a direct disputation on Rousseau's text of the same title, her Declaration meant to mirror the Declaration de droits des hommes, etc).

The legacy of Olympe de Gouges is thus the necessity of performing politics, of making the impossible real. And in particular, she bequeaths to us the lesson that staging the impossible is the joint vocation of both politics and art. Just as her political statements militated against the real contradiction of being female under the Revolution, her literary writings, plays concerned almost exclusively with the abolition of slavery and colonization, staged the contradiction of racial oppression, using the theatrical stage to make manifest the inhuman conditions to which racialized bodies were subject. The theatre of politics and the politics of theatre, the dual role of both art and politics, according to Olympe de Gouges is to birth the impossible into reality. As we reflect on her birthday, the question to be asked is thus: Which impossibility must we make real?

It is the centrality of the impossible which has been consistently overlooked, even by the most sensitive, nuanced, and brilliant academics and activists. Olympe de Gouges beckons a re-evaluation of all of our strategies, insisting that politics occurs only when a contradiction is staged, enacted, performed. To May '68's "Be realistic; demand the impossible" we must revise: "Be political; become the impossible."

The anti-capitalist feminist struggle today must heed this lesson. It must do more than write manifestos and pamphlets, organize rallies and marches. We must do all of these things and we must do them well. These are the modes of expression that our grandmothers and mothers fought and died for, and they are rights for which some still struggle. They must be vigilantly and militantly defended.

But we must also develop new stagings, new forms of resistance which themselves perform the contradictions of a uniquely neoliberal capitalist patriarchy. Our bodies and our lives all bear the stain of the series of proliferating inequalities, oppressions, violence, forced silences. These lived contradictions can become the seed of politics only when staged radically, publicly, and collectively.

If the assassination of Marat teaches us the objectivity of the will, does not the execution of Olympe de Gouges teach us the aesthetics of circumstances? Could we not thus imagine Olympe de Gouges standing on the scaffold, her delicate neck exposed to the cold failure of the revolution, enacting even in her death the fundamental contradiction of her life -- that she could go to guillotine but not the assembly -- composing her final work? Is the wooden frame of the guillotine, les bois de justice as they called it, not also her writing desk? The creation of the impossible, the inauguration of new modes of sensibility, the performance of social relations, the task of the revolutionary -- is this not also the description of an artist?

Ashley Bohrer is a feminist activist and PhD candidate at DePaul University.