Heroes of the ghastly French Revolution are few in number.
Hundreds of thousands of people perished in a decade-long spasm of violence, tyranny, hyperinflation and war with precious little to show for it.
The French Revolution produced no admirable generation of “Founders” as in America. In its most violent phase known as The Terror, the streets of Paris ran red with blood. It all ended in a coup masterminded in 1799 by Napoleon Bonaparte, who crowned himself Emperor five years later.
What about women? Didn’t they win some long-sought freedom from oppression? Not much. Historian Steven Clarke in his book, “The French Revolution and What Went Wrong,” says that these minor advances for the female gender are the extent of it: daughters were enabled to inherit as much as their brothers, divorce was allowed, women over 21 could finally marry who they wanted without parental consent and females were given permission to sign legal documents as witnesses.
“But apart from those concessions,” writes Clarke, “the Revolution was one long campaign to enforce male supremacy.” The Revolution produced at least one hero, however, and it was a woman.
My choice for greatest hero of the Revolution is Olympe de Gouges. She possessed more integrity and honor than any of the big-name, male rabble-rousers of her day.
Born in 1748, Gouges earned a national reputation as a playwright and an outspoken opponent of the slave trade before her 30th birthday. She was among the earliest defenders of the rights of women, demanding the same as those for men.
Death threats resulted from one of her earliest plays, “The Lucky Shipwreck,” about the terrors of the slavery and the slave trade. She narrowly escaped prison but the powers-that-be banned the play. Her work inspired riots in Paris and across the Atlantic in the Caribbean.
Gouge was very much a revolutionary but not the bloodthirsty, vengeance-seeking, power-hungry type that would take over in 1793. Historians regard her as “fairly moderate in her politics,” noting that she endorsed a constitutional monarchy on the order of Great Britain’s, with drastically reduced powers for the king. In addition to asserting that women were entitled to the same rights as men, her message was humane, anti-violence and supportive of ending special privileges granted by the State.
She despised both customs and laws that advantaged some at the expense of others because she believed every individual was entitled to the upward mobility their character, abilities and ambitions would naturally give them if unobstructed.
To the radicals, this was more than a little annoying. This upstart woman was daring to challenge the direction they were charting. Amid their calls for ever more violence, Gouges was shouting, “Blood, even that of the guilty, if shed cruelly and profusely, sullies revolutions forever.”
Imprisoned for three months with no access to legal counsel, she was subsequently tried for treason on November 2, 1793 and guillotined the next day. She was the second woman in revolutionary France, after Marie Antoinette, to lose her head to a basket.
Three cheers to Olympe de Gouges. She was a hero in a time and place that produced so few.
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education. He writes about exceptional people, including many from his book, “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .