Tuesday 3 November 2015

The Rights of Women

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . ." is how Dickens' Tale of Two Cities launches into a story of romance and honour set in the midst of the French Revolution. It was certainly interesting times, when everything was thrown up in the air and [the] people were invited to choose what to keep and how to arrange the pieces into a coherent and fairer world. In August 1789, the French National Constituent Assembly published a "Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen!" - the Rights of Man - enumerating what seemed to be the natural rights of Everyman.  If we were to follow the precepts of the Declaration, we'd all get a fair crack of the whip rather than a relentless lashing from those who held the reins of power. The stamp of Thomas Jefferson is all over the document although seemingly channelled through General Lafayette [aka Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, Marquis de Lafayette for the full monty]. It includes such wisdom as Art 4. "La liberté consiste à pouvoir faire tout ce qui ne nuit pas à autrui . . ." or "Your rights end where my nose begins" It was stirring and inspiring stuff until someone pointed out that it only applied to half of humanity.

Olympe de Gouges [on the left where she was happiest] took two years over it - she was busy surviving the buffets of a revolution as well as having a lot of other material to get down on paper - but in September 1791 she launched her counter-blast to reset the scales of justice: Déclaration des droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne. You can get the full text in English to see whether you agree.  Such a statement as "Art 17. Property belongs to both sexes whether united or separated; it is for each of them an inviolable and sacred right, and no one may be deprived of it . . ." was not implemented in English law [and by UK extension in Ireland] until the Married Women's Property Act of 1882. It would have been infinitely frustrating for Olympe to see her aspirational and inspirational Declaration ignored for the best part of a century.  But she did not live in this frustrated state for long.

She wasn't about to go quietly along with the political flow; no, she was going to continue her prodigious output of plays, essays and pamphlets.  All of them vehicles for what she believed to be right and what would make France and the World a better place. She was, for example, an abolitionist decades before it became mainstream.  I don't suppose Jeremy Bentham, another early abolitionist, was any more accepting of her ideas than he was over Les droits de l'homme - "nonsense on stilts". Like a lot of our current ideals, Olympe's polemics were only partly universal and for all time; and partly limited by her own imagination of what was possible living in the 1790s, not the 1590s or 1990s. Although an independent and original thinker and writer she was associated in the political/public mind with the Girondists. When the balance of power tilted towards the Jacobins in the Summer of 1793, the Girondists were swept up in a razzia and banged into jail, Olympe de Gouges amongst them. She continued to write from jail until on 2nd November she was put through a show-trial worthy of Stalin or McCarthy and on 3rd November 1793 she mounted the scaffold to be guillotined. It's quite hard, at this distance in time, to appreciate the ideological, let alone the practical and effective, differences between Jacobins and La Gironde; surely not enough to execute people about. That's what I mean about trying to see things from outside your own certainties.  On a cosmic scale of politics there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats in the US or between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael here. Each party has a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. If we get all hot and bothered [Ireland must hold a general election before the end of February 2016] about minute differences of policy we are condemned to living the same-old-same-old for ever.  Bring on the dancing elephants, let the circus begin.

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