"A Woman Who Has Only Paradoxes
to Offer": Olympe de Gouges
Claims Rights for Women
JOAN WALLACH SCOTT
Si j'allais plus avant sur cette matière, je pourrais m'étendre trop loin, et m'attirer l'inimitié des hommes parvenus, qui, sans réfléchir sur mes bonnes vues, ni approfondir mes bonnes intentions, me condamneraient impitoyablement comme une femme qui n'a que des paradoxes à offrir, et non des problemes faciles à résoudre.
Olympe de Gouges, 1789
For women, the legacy of the French Revolution was contradictory. On the one hand, the unit of national sovereignty was declared to be a universal, abstract, rights-bearing individual; on the other hand, this human subject was almost immediately given particularized embodiment as a man. The abstraction of a genderless individual endowed with natural rights made it possible for women to claim the political rights of active citizens and, when denied them in practice, to protest against exclusion as unjust, a violation of the founding principles of the republic. There is no question, from this perspective, of the powerful impetus such universal theory gave (and continues to give) to democratic movements. But there is also no question that the equally abstract gesture of embodiment—the attribution of citizenship to (white) male subjects—complicated enormously the project of claiming equal rights, for it suggested either that rights themselves, or at least how and where they were exercised, depended on the physical characteristics of human bodies. This particularization of the human in the name of universality introduced into discussions of equality the problem of difference: How could those who were
I wish to thank Sara Melzer and Leslie Rabine for helpful editorial readings and Judith Butler, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Ruth Leys, Denise Riley, Donald Scott, and Elizabeth Weed for their invaluable critical suggestions. A somewhat different version of this essay appeared as "French Feminists and the Rights of 'Man': Olympe de Gouge's Declarations," in History Workshop, 28 (Autumn 1989), pp. 1-21.