At a small 5 cornered cross-roads on the eastern fringe of the Marais in Paris (3e), Place Olympe de Gouges attracts little attention. Five tiny streets converge around a small brick circle with a solitary tree and a small plaque. Olympe de Gouges was a revolutionary feminist put to death by the Republic for accusing revolutionary leadership of injustice. Some historians consider Gouges the first modern feminist. A full year before Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Gouges published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen – the very first charter for women’s rights. She was, among other things, a playwrite and short story writer who used her talents as a writer to condemn slavery, poverty and injustice wherever she saw it.
I’ll return to my brief introduction to this remarkable and largely overlooked (until recently) feminist, activist, writer and political figure, but I want to tell you about some street art that found there earlier today (pictured above) — the prompt for both my history lesson (I had never heard of Gouges before this) and this post.
I was drifting through the streets of the Marias, no particular destination in mind, when I found myself at the Fontaine Boucherat, a public water spout built in 1697 on one of the five corners bounding Place Olympe de Gouges. As I watched two locals fill water bottles, and half-admiring and half-loathing the monumental structure (in memory to a Parlimentarian of no particular interest, as far as I can tell, a faithful employee of Louis XIV and certainly not as remarkable or memorable as Gouges), I noticed just to the right of the fountain the images mounted on the cement (see accompanying pictures). The street art is by an unknown artist (perhaps he is the one in the portrait?). And check out the little video figure on the lower right made of mosaic tiles. What fun.
Now, back to the story of Olympe de Gouges …
In the early days of French revolutionary enthusiasm, women were involved in politics in new and exciting ways, but their hopes that the spirit of reform would extend to women’s rights slowly dissolved in the wake of regressive steps taken by republican leaders to exclude women from public life in the new regime.
Olympe de Gouges was publicly slandered and then sentenced to death by the provisional government, killed by guillotine in 1793. Her work until recently was largely ignored, but the effort to have her place in history remembered as an early and pioneering feminist is gaining support, as evidenced by the naming of this little Parisian intersection in her honour in 2004. Growing interest in Gouges as an historical figure comes from recognition of her political courage, and also in response to the large body of literary work she produced in her short lifetime. It includes short stories, pamphlets, posters and plays. For example, her play L’Esclavage des Negres denounced slavery so aggressively that it caused considerable public outrage, and her play The Convent, which condemned enforced religious vows for young girls, was performed at least 41 times in the period 1790-92. She was a staunch and an early public supporter of divorce, and she advocated for publicly funded maternity hospitals to address infant and mother mortality in childbirth. But when she set her critical sites on the revolutionary leaders after the massacres Sept 1792, with writing such as … ‘Robespierre… you call yourself the originator of the Revolution; you were not, are not, and never will be anything other than its bane and disgrace’ … she was sentenced to death at age 38. Shortly after her execution, the National Assembly passed a decision banning women from assembling in groups larger than five.
What a lucky find — a fine specimen of found street art at a very special place in Paris dedicated to a remarkable woman.