Clio Talks Back

I.M.O.W.'s debut blog, Clio Talks Back, will change the way you think about women throughout history! Be informed and transformed by Clio Talks Back, written by the museum's resident historian Karen Offen.

Inspired by Clio, the Greek muse of History, and the museum's global online exhibitions Economica and Women, Power and Politics, Karen takes readers on a journey through time and place where women have shaped and changed our world. You will build your repertoire of rare trivia and conversation starters and occasionally hear from guest bloggers including everyone from leading historians in the field to the historical women themselves.

Read the entries, post a comment, and be inspired to create your own legacies to transform our world.


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Who was the first woman blogger?

What difference do women make? What difference can they make? And how do they do it? One way they can make a difference is by speaking up. And speaking out.

Does anybody out there know who was the first woman political blogger? I’ve got a candidate to propose. Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793) is her name and she lived in Paris during the time of the French Revolution. Having no Internet at her disposal, she wrote and published pamphlets and broadsides in thousands of copies, and had them posted on the city walls. Although some claimed she was illiterate, she nevertheless dictated and published plays and wrote a fictionalized autobiography. She had strong views on many subjects, from black slavery (which she strongly opposed) to women’s rights (which she strongly advocated) and she did not hesitate to express those views in print.

During the early years of the revolution, as the long-overdue parliament (the Estates General) met, she campaigned on behalf of a patriotic gift by women to the state, to ease the dire financial situation of the kingdom. In 1790-91 she proposed a people’s court to try criminal cases and a female national guard. She took part in a number of revolutionary festivals, sometimes as the leader of the women’s processions. She also publicized her opinions about various male leaders of revolutionary factions, including some she couldn’t stand such as Robespierre and Marat.

In September 1791 Olympe de Gouges published most famous tract, “The Rights of Woman” [Droits de la femme]. She deliberately followed the style and format of the celebrated Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), and invoked its principles on behalf of the female sex. Her analysis of women’s position was far more radical than that of the marquis de Condorcet, who in 1790 had demanded women’s admission to citizenship (including the right to vote), or the English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Woman appeared in English and French in 1792.

Before the overthrow of the monarchy in late 1792, Olympe de Gouges addressed all her political writings – including those on women – to royal patrons. In the Droits de la femme she called on the queen, Marie-Antoinette, to turn away from counter-revolutionary intrigue with foreign powers (especially Austria, then governed by the queen’s brother, Joseph II) and to champion instead the cause of women, the better to lead a long overdue revolution in morals. “The revolution will occur,” she wrote in the dedication, “only when all women are convinced of their deplorable fate and of the rights they have lost in society. Madame, support such a good cause, defend this unfortunate sex, and you will soon have one half the Kingdom on your side, along with at least one third of the other half.”

The Droits de la Femme opened with a challenge: “Men, are you capable of being just? It is a woman who asks you this question; at least you will not deny her this right. Tell me! Who has given you the sovereign authority to oppress my sex?” She called for a national assembly of women – “mothers, daughters, sisters” – and drafted her Articles in the Preamble. The first of her seventeen articles is: “Woman is born free and remains equal in rights to man. Social distinctions can be founded only on general utility.” She also demanded that women be “equally admissable to all public offices, places, and employments” (Art. 6) and that, being equally liable for their crimes, women must have the right to speak out in public (Art. 10). Clearly mirroring Rousseau’s Social Contract, she drafts a model marriage contract, which included a formula for legitimizing children “from whatever bed they might spring.” She also advocated civil divorce, which the revolutionary government then legalized.

The Jacobins (who took control of the new French Republic in 1792-93) cracked down on women’s political action as part of the Terror. In early November 1793, after a peremptory show trial, they guillotined Olympe de Gouges, making it unmistakably clear that the combination of her monarchist politics with her “unwomanly” behavior, especially her assertive campaign for women’s equality, would no longer be tolerated. “She wanted to be a statesman, and it appears that the law has punished this conspiratrice for forgetting the virtues of her sex.” (Feuille de Salut Public, Nov. 1793).

Olympe de Gouges lost her life in defending the rights of women. She was original, brave, and outspoken in a time that did not much appreciate women’s perspectives on political affairs. How many other women have lost their lives for speaking out like this?

Who is your candidate for the first woman blogger? What other forms might blogging have taken in your part of the world even before printing and the Internet?

Comments

Hi Karen! Thank you for your wonderful blog! I am inspired to learn more about brave women throughout history who have fought for women's rights. It makes me feel committed to continue the work of courageous women like Olympe de Gouges. It reminds me that all you need is awareness, courage and voice to speak out for justice. Whether that voice is shouted in the streets, printed on paper, or typed in a blog. We're all part of the same struggle to make our demands heard.

Laura Kerr
United States

Hello Karen!

Thank you for sharing a glimpse into the inspiring life of Olympe de Gouges. You describe such an incredible woman, and yet she had such a tragic ending. It is hard to believe that over two hundred years later, women are still suffering fates similar to hers. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed in Moscow in 2006, presumably for reporting on events in Chechnya. And Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi continues to live under house arrest for her vocal opposition to Burma’s (Myanmar’s) military regime. And these brave women are only two examples of the persecution of free speech that continues around the globe.

For those of us unfettered by oppression, we have an unprecedented number of ways to express ourselves—blogs, social networking, print media, speeches, video, art, music, theatre. I hope our collective commitment and willingness to share our voices and opinions inspires hope in women for whom freedom of speech is not yet the inalienable right that it should be.


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