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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter September 26, 2022

Cocks on Dunghills – Wollstonecraft and Gouges on the Women’s Revolution

  • Sandrine Bergès and Alan Coffee EMAIL logo
From the journal SATS


While many historians and philosophers have sought to understand the ‘failure’ of the French Revolution to thrive and to avoid senseless violence, very few have referred to the works of two women philosophers who diagnosed the problems as they were happening. This essay looks at how Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges theorised the new tyranny that grew out of the French Revolution, that of ‘petty tyrants’ who found themselves like ‘cocks on a dunghill’ able to wield a new power over those less fortunate than themselves. Both offer diagnoses and prognoses that revolve around education. Wollstonecraft argues that a revolution that is not backed by a previous education of the people is bound to result in chaos and violence. Such education, however, must be slow, and it necessitates the reform of the institutions that most shape the public’s character. A revolution, perforce, is fast, and it often takes several years, or even generations before the spirit of the reforms finds itself implemented into new institutions. Olympe de Gouges shares Wollstonecraft’s worry and she observes that the men who were once dominated quickly become tyrants themselves unless their moral character is already virtuous. But the state of being dominated leaves little room for virtue; hence, newly minted citizens need to be educated in order not to replicate the reign of tyranny onto other. Gouges suggests that the answer to the difficulty she and Wollstonecraft highlighted was to educate the people where they could be found: on the streets, or, where they could easily and willingly be gathered: in theatres. By helping organise revolutionary festivals, highlighting the ways in which citizens could be virtuous, and writing plays to awaken their virtue, and proposing a reform of the theatre, so that the production of such plays would be possible, Gouges offered a plan for the civic education of French citizens in the immediate aftermaths of the Revolution. Unfortunately, the chaos she and Wollstonecraft had sought to remedy, led by the cocks or petty tyrants, ensured that they were unable to see through their plans, with Wollstonecraft having to leave Paris and Gouges being sent to the guillotine.

You may think it too soon to form an opinion of the future government, yet it is impossible to avoid hazarding some conjectures, when everything whispers me, that names, not principles, are changed, and when I see that the turn of the tide has left the dregs of the old system to corrupt the new.

For the same pride of office, the same desire of power are still visible; with this aggravation, that, fearing to return to obscurity after having but just acquired a relish for distinction, each hero, or philosopher, for all are dubbed with these new titles, endeavors to make hay while the sun shines; and every petty municipal officer, become the idol, or rather the tyrant of the day, stalks like a cock on a dunghill.

Mary Wollstonecraft, Letter on the Present Character of the French Nation Paris, 15 February, 1793 (Wollstonecraft 1989, 446)

A central problem in the bringing about of a social or political revolution is how to ensure that the state of affairs aimed at will last. A key virtue of any society is its stability, something which is built into its institutions and social practices. These institutions and practices are not easy to establish and tend to develop slowly, requiring the support and goodwill of those who live under them. Revolutions, by their nature, by contrast are highly disruptive and often divisive.

The problem of achieving long-term stability is all the greater when it comes to the sorts of political revolution – often, though not necessarily, violent – that aims at the wholesale overturning and replacement of a form of government and way of life, such as resulted from the French Revolution, and the more social form of revolution historically advocated by feminists that, while no less far-reaching in aspiration, involves the transformation of institutions and practices within an existing political system. The distinction between these two forms of revolution is not entirely clear-cut, at least for the purposes of the arguments we shall make, since both entail a combination of changing social practices and political structures, replacing what went before with substantially new forms that have to gain sufficient traction within the population for them to be sustainable in the new society.

The problem of bringing about a lasting and stable revolution is not new, of course. Political philosophers have wrestled with it since antiquity. The issue was particularly alive in people’s minds during the 1790s when the seismic political upheaval of 1789 was accompanied by growing movements for other forms of social and democratic overhaul, including the visible beginnings of a sustained feminist movement (although the term would only become applied a century later). A related issue for prospective revolutionaries concerned whether change should be sought all at once or should proceed in a measured and step-by-step manner, allowing citizens and leaders to internalise and accept the changes, seeking the optimal forms of institution, before moving on to the next step. Debates concerning the abolition of slavery, for example, were divided between those calling for instant emancipation of all those enslaved, and those who argued that this would only cause more turmoil and harm, and that the time should be taken to put the various mechanisms in place to manage the process in a manageable way.[1] The same dilemma is faced by anyone advocating radical change or revolution. While there are, of course, serious moral considerations at stake concerning the importance of the normative principles involved, another set of considerations are pragmatic, given the potentially destructive forces involved. On the one hand, those with power will not likely relinquish it easily. “Power”, Frederick Douglass observed, “concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will” (1976, 437).[2] In some cases, people are so indignant that their position of privilege is being threatened by those they believe to be inferior, that they will rather destroy their society than willingly come to share power. On the other hand, according to Wollstonecraft the pent-up rage and sense of having nothing to lose amongst the oppressed – “the calamitous horrours produced by desperate and enraged factions” (1794, viii) – may bring more troubles than they resolve.[3]

Wollstonecraft also identifies a third kind of obstacle to a successful, lasting revolution, one which provides the title for this article and which will be the focus of the final section. This is the petty “hero or philosopher” who endeavours to make hay during the turmoil and confusion of a revolution, whom she describes as stalking “like a cock on a dunghil”. These are not members of the powerful elite clinging to power, nor are they violent insurgents. Rather, they are fairly ordinary people, such as minor local municipal officers, who see an advantage in the lack of cohesion around them. The cocks may act from paltry reasons, so to speak, but their effect, Wollstonecraft argues, is often to thwart the process of rational reform that might otherwise help bring an orderly transition.

The French Revolution, according to Wollstonecraft, was at root “a revolution in the minds of men” that “only demanded a new system of government to be adapted to that change” (1794, 397). This statement perhaps, over-simplifies her overall position. While revolution does, indeed, take place in the minds of the people, it is not just the system of government that must be adapted. The people themselves must become adapted. This entails not only a rational grasp of the principles at stake but an internalisation of those principles, through what she refers to as the appropriate virtues, or dispositions and behaviours. In short, the population must be turned into citizens not just in form but also in substance. The cocks on their dunghills pose a particular kind of threat to the development of these virtues through their tendency to interfere with the processes by which public-spirited attitudes come to be acquired.

In what follows, we will set Wollstonecraft’s basic argument out, illustrating and augmenting it with the work of her French contemporary and counterpart, Olympe de Gouges. There are striking parallels between Gouges and Wollstonecraft’s diagnosis of what needed to happen for the revolution to succeed. Both started with a strong condemnation of tyranny based on republican principles, and as women, both saw that tyranny extended far beyond that of the king over subjects, but could be seen in many layers of society. The petty tyrants they denounce, the ‘cocks on a dunghill’ are not men who belong to a powerful class, but men who find themselves suddenly able to exercise power indiscriminately.[4] In Section 2, we will present Wollstonecraft’s framework, basing this around the principle that underpinning lasting and stable social change must be a rational and conceptual revolution. In Section 3 we will then examine Gouges’s observations of how the lack of civic education led to the breeding of petty tyrants who in turn interfered with the creation of the social cohesion needed for the revolution to progress. In Section 4 we turn to what Gouges envisaged as a solution: education of the people through festivals and the theatre. In the final section, we briefly return to Wollstonecraft’s specific insights about the obstacle posed by the petty tyrants.

1 Conceptual Revolution

Wollstonecraft makes no bones about the need for revolution if we are to bring about a just society and a legitimate political order. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she concludes with the recognition that such a society cannot be brought about without what she calls a ‘revolution in female manners’ (2014, 71, 224). This revolution in manners is not itself a political revolution – though it is a prerequisite for a successful one – and neither is it a violent revolution. It is, rather, a conceptual revolution, both rational and social. Although Wollstonecraft does not explicitly define what she means, the revolution in female manners is not about etiquette or women’s behavior specifically so much as the whole system of social, economic and political relations in which women’s lives are enmeshed (Coffee 2013, 128). Nevertheless, while this conceptual revolution does not constitute a political one, it does precede political change. Not only is conceptual change necessary for the success of the equal legal and political rights suggested by the title of Wollstonecraft’s book, but once the conceptual change is made, these rights become irresistible, not least because the system of rights will necessarily be made by women and men together collaboratively.

By itself, the claim that effective political rights and true social equality require certain background conditions is, perhaps, not particularly distinctive, although it is often overlooked or downplayed. It is, however, central to Wollstonecraft’s philosophical system and so to understand her position fully, we must view it within its wider framework. She uses the exact phrase ‘revolution in female manners’ twice. She argues, first, that it is time for a revolution, being “time to restore to [women] their lost dignity – and make them, as part of the human species, labor by reforming themselves to reform the world”, adding that we must “separate unchangeable manners from local manners” (71), and then later observes that “women at present are by ignorance rendered foolish and vicious”, something that can only be corrected through a revolution. Taken together, these statements suggest that the present system of social, economic and political relations have affected women in two specific but related ways. It has hindered their reason (foolishness) and their moral and civic virtue (vicious) both of which combine to degrade women as human beings and agents. Furthermore, the fate of women is intertwined with men – and by extension, the fate of all citizens is bound up with all others – as by bringing about the revolution in manners (reforming themselves) they effect a broader revolution (reforming the world). Finally, the revolution is a rational and moral one, one based in unchanging or immutable principles (namely, based in the natural law) rather than contingent or expedient (local) factors. We can give these claims related to the revolution in female manners more precise content by setting out the element of Wollstonecraft’s framework more systematically.

The central value, according to Wollstonecraft, of a political system is independence, both for individuals and for the collective body. Independence – which she uses interchangeably with ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ – is valuable in itself, being a reflection of human agency (and hence of dignity). Independence is also valuable as a necessary condition for another good which is valuable in itself, virtue. Wollstonecraft establishes the significance of both independence and virtue, and their connection, at the start of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, declaring independence “as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue” (21). Virtue is also a necessary condition for a viable, and just, society. There are two reasons for this, reflecting two distinct, if related, and aspects of virtue. Virtue can refer to a person’s willingness and capacity to deliberate and act in accordance with the requirements of reason, something Wollstonecraft discusses at the start of chapter one in the Vindication. Virtue is also used in a moral sense, synonymously with benevolence. These two senses are tied together since reason is God-given and it is always in our best interests, individually and collectively, to act in accordance with the rational, moral law. “[T]o submit to reason,” Wollstonecraft argues, “is to submit to the nature of things, and to that God, who formed them so, to promote our real interest” (186). In a political context, then, virtuous persons are those who both deliberate rationally with others and who put the public good over their private interests. Collectively, the two conditions of independence and virtue require that community is governed by a rational law that acts in the best interests of all the citizens, upholding their individual independence as moral and rational agents, this being grounded in unchangeable, or rational, rather than local or contingent considerations which might favor some sections of the population over others.

These conditions of independence and virtue imply a third value, equality. The law must protect and enable every individual equally rather than serving only a subsection. Everyone must have an equal stake in the community, and be equally independent. Wollstonecraft establishes the necessity of equality several times in the Vindication of the Rights of Men, where she argues that “virtue can only flourish amongst equals” and that “among unequals there can be no society” (1992, 64, 39). The reason why equality is so important is pragmatic rather than normative, though equality is itself a normative value implied by the equal dignity of human rational agents. The practical importance of equality is that inequality is said to undermine, or corrupt, people’s willingness and capacity to act virtuously. If people are unequal before the law, then they will be dependent on those who are better, or fully, protected. Here, Wollstonecraft draws on the long tradition in republicanism of considering the classical account of the relationship between masters and slaves.

Virtue requires the ability to stand up for principle, always acting on the best reasons according to reason and the moral law, often taking tough decisions that might upset others. Slaves, by the nature of their condition, are said not to have this luxury. Instead, they are prudentially motivated to take steps to “manage” those with power, placating, deceiving or avoiding them. Moreover, while this is a rational strategy for slaves, it was thought to have a lasting, perhaps irreversible, impact on their characters. Habit breeds disposition and so slaves come to internalise their cunning, sycophantic or cowardly ways. Wollstonecraft applies this reasoning to women, who had no legal rights and few social and economic opportunities for security without the protection of a man. “Whilst they are absolutely dependent on their husbands”, she argues, women “will be cunning, mean, and selfish” (171) and must either “render them[selves] alluring” or “govern their tyrants by sinister tricks” (174). “It is”, she argues in conclusion, “vain to expect virtue from women till they are… independent of men” since we cannot “expect virtue from a slave, from a being whom the constitution of civil society has rendered weak, if not vicious”, again tying together the concepts of equality, virtue and independence (171, 135). It should be emphasized, of course, that Wollstonecraft is illustrating a general truth with the example of women and not, as has sometimes been suggested, specifically singling out women for opprobrium.[5] In the first Vindication (of the rights of men), Wollstonecraft emphasises that “inequality of rank”, wherever found, “must ever impede the growth of virtue by vitiating the mind that submits or domineers” (1992, 49). Here, Wollstonecraft indicates that the only remedy for the vicious, and hence unvirtuous, condition into which French society has descended because of its pervasive, rampant and structural inequality is through liberty (or independence), something which in this context must be brought about through revolution: “such a glorious change can only be produced by liberty [independence]”, something which requires a revolution to bring about given the nature and scale of the structural social and institutional changes involved (1992, 48).

Systematic and widespread patterns of inequality and dependence inevitably undermine the levels of civic virtue necessary for a free and stable society to persist. Rather than serving the common good, both dominant and dominated alike are pitted against each other by the necessity of preserving or securing their interests. Many people will, in different ways be cast in both roles, finding themselves to be links in “a chain of despots, who, submitting and tyrannizing without exercising their reason, become dead weights of vice and folly on the community” (2014, 42). Someone working in the royal court, or as a soldier or priest, for example, may have a harsh or unpredictable superior to whom he must pander, and then take it out on his subordinates in the same way. Wives, too, may suffer from having a domineering husband and then tyrannise her servants or children in turn (1787, 63). The effects on people embroiled in these corrupting relationships are twofold, corresponding to Wollstonecraft’s observation that women (though, as we have seen, women are not alone in this) have been rendered “foolish and vicious”. Taking the latter first, anger and bitterness builds within the population, a force which as we will see below can eventually result in the violent excesses of the French Revolution. The physicality of the anger may not always be manifest, of course. Women’s struggle for liberation and equality was not historically characterised through violent means. This should not obscure their indignation, however. Nancy Kingsbury Wollstonecraft, Mary Wollstonecraft’s sister-in-law, expresses it this way: “The love of power is a passion no less ardent in the weak than in the strong, and when [woman] saw herself defrauded… while she appeared to acquiesce… and submitted to be thought beautiful and silly, she only studied how she should, with these, outwit wisdom and knowledge” as practiced by men (1825, 129).

The sense in which people become ‘fools’ is, perhaps, even more pronounced. There are several aspects to this. The first is that people’s ability to reason becomes ‘clouded’ (Wollstonecraft 2014, 38). They are resistant to the force of rational arguments, being motivated to believe and defend convenient ideas that give them an advantage (such as that the nobility deserve their superior position, or that women are naturally dependent on men). Rather than to pursue the truth on these matters, people are moved to “employ their reason to justify prejudices”. In this way, Wollstonecraft argues, “expediency is continually contrasted with simple principles, till truth is lost in a mist of words, virtue, in forms, and knowledge rendered a sounding nothing, by the specious prejudices that assume its name”. The result being a series of “absurd sophisms which daily insult common sense”. The accumulated result of this abandonment of sense and reason in favor of prejudices built on a power-dynamic between the constitutive groups in society is a culture woven with oppressive falsehoods in which one either thrives or survives through what Wollstonecraft refers to as ‘dissimulation’ rather than good faith. To take just one example, that of society’s fixation on a woman’s reputation for chastity, Wollstonecraft observes that “there is but one fault which a woman of honor may not commit with impunity”, namely that she must not be caught in a love intrigue (2014, 166). If she succeeds in this single objective, “she may neglect every social duty; nay, ruin her family by gaming and extravagance; yet still present a shameless front—for truly she is a honorable woman!” What matters for a woman is neither what she is like in her character, nor what her talents or achievements may be, so much as how well she performs the social role demanded of her, irrespective of how accurately it reflects her actual behavior.

Women, then, are not rewarded socially either for their ability to reason or even for their true character. Once the chord is cut linking social behavior from truth, it is replaced with expedience and a struggle for power. Wollstonecraft believes that the consequences for society are catastrophic. If we are to remedy this, then, two strands must be addressed, corresponding to the two senses of virtue, reason and benevolence, and correlating to our minds and our hearts. The most obvious places to start are with education and a sense of civic community.

The way in which the French Revolution turned to catastrophe was of course the Terror, the onset of which Wollstonecraft witnessed, as her new Girondins friends were sent to the Guillotine. But long before that, there were cracks, which Wollstonecraft would – and did – identify as the behavior of petty officials, empowered by the new order and yet lacking the necessary civic virtues. These were the men she called ‘cocks on a dunghill’ and they were an omnipresent festering feature of the early days of the French Revolution. In the next section we look at how Gouges, philosopher, playwright and pamphleteer, described the ‘cocks’ interference with the rightful course of the Revolution.

2 A Tale of Two Drivers

Although Gouges was mostly enthusiastic about the revolution, and although she was firmly in the republican camp (which, at the beginning, was in favor of constitutional monarchy), she was dismayed, as many were, by the disorder of the early days of the Revolution. In the months following the fall of the Bastille, the French people, empowered by their initial act of rebellion – taking down the infamous prison, and murdering its governor – and by the fact that many of the King’s soldiers had joined the new people’s army under Lafayette, were unrestrained in their behavior. Aristocrats were mobbed in the street, nuns dragged out of their convents and whipped, and in the country side, there were rumors of aristocratic homes being under attack (Scurr 2017, 154). Gouges observed that this was not what she had expected from the revolution, that such violence was not ‘patriotic’:

For eight months I have heard of nothing but plots by enemies of the fatherland; and to destroy these futile ghosts, for four months all citizens are, day and night, in tumult; and this great combat, which should have been the result of so much work, is ending in torture; what torture!…Emphatically one shameful to the nation I dare say (Gouges 1790).

As well as observing the growing violence around her, and attributing it to a failure to grasp what it was the revolution was supposed to bring, i.e. liberty and equality, Gouges noticed a certain amount of failed democracy in everyday life. People, or at least part of the people, deeply misunderstood what was at stake in the revolution, and turned instead to their own, often petty, interests. She describes how a driver deliberately splashes and then insults a national guard:

Once home I asked him why he insulted a man who appeared to be devoted to his fatherland, even if it cost the eyes of his fellow citizens. – “Ah! Those national guards, the Bs…, most of them beat us up and pay us really badly, and on top of all that we’re dying of hunger. I had six well-equipped carriages, and I had to sell four to keep the two that were left on the road. I was a proper democrat from the start of the revolution, believing it would do us good but I’m now a dogged aristocrat" (Gouges 1790).

The people’s commitment to the revolution and to its democratic values, she says, are skin deep, or more understandably in a time of frequent famines and bread shortage, stomach deep, and easily reversed upon the realization that the revolution will not bring immediate relief to the poor. But if it had not given the people a firm grasp of the principles needed to govern themselves, the revolution, by arming them, had given them a sense that they were in some way masters of their destiny, and, perhaps more importantly, that they could cut short someone else’s destiny by simply killing them in the name of the Revolution. In other words, if the Revolution had not transformed every subject into a Republican citizen, conscious of their duties as well as their rights, it had given them a clear path to abusive power and tyranny.

A year after these observations, as she wrote her Rights of Woman, Gouges described how some citizens, empowered by the new regime, and had thoroughly internalized this tyrannical attitude. This is again an anecdote featuring a cab driver, whom she portrays as a cock strutting on his mobile dunghill.[6] The incident happened as Olympe de Gouges had travelled from Auteuil to her Paris printer in a cab, and was dragged to the police by a disgruntled driver who insisted on charging her an exorbitant price for the journey.

[…] I owed the coachman for an hour and a half but in order not to get into a fight with him I offered him 48 sous; as usual he loudly demanded more. I stubbornly refused to give him more than his due for an equitable soul would rather be generous than duped. I threatened him with the law; he said he cared nothing for it and insisted that I pay him for 2 h […] Knowing the law better than he did I said to him, ‘Sir, I refuse and I would beg you to be aware that you are exceeding the prerogative of your position.’ So this man, or to put it better this lunatic, got carried away and threatened me with La Force [prison] if I did not pay straightaway, or he would keep me in his office all day. […] This sort of thing abounds. Good patriots, as well as bad ones, indiscriminately suffer similar misadventures. There is but one cry concerning the disorder of the sections and tribunals. Justice has no voice; the law is disregarded and, God knows how, the police are inured (Gouges 1791).

In 1790, the problem was that nobody (save perhaps some members of the Assembly) knew what was at stake in the creation of a constitution, and in particular, what it would mean for the poorer members of the Third Estate, those who had been represented at the Assembly, and defended by Sieyès and Mirabeau, but who lacked the education or the economic power to represent themselves. This led, Gouges observed, to disorder, and reversals of allegiances on grounds that were far from political. But by 1791, once the revolution had set in, she observed something new and more disturbing. Political ignorance and self-interest, together with the new confidence in the power of the people to affect government, had turned anyone who had an official role to play in the revolution into a potential tyrant. Far from using their newly acquired political power to fight for justice and against domination, they used it to assert their own power over anyone who looked as if they could not defend themselves. The revolution had given the people power, but without any real substance, and without what Wollstonecraft deemed, a year or so later, of utmost importance, power over oneself (Wollstonecraft 2014, 90), so that it tended to turn into tyranny, rather than self-rule or democracy.

3 The Street as School for (Civic) Virtue

Whilst the Revolution may have eliminated some harmful prejudices, it did not eliminate the propensity to form prejudices. It had not taken the time to nurture either reason or virtue so that the freedom acquired was but superficial, unsustainable, and liable to reproduce tyranny. Gouges’s response to this failing and the consequent growing tyrannical tendency of the French people was to claim, along with other French revolutionaries, that citizens must become virtuous in order to remain free. If not, they may be better off as subjects to a King.[7]

Is France doomed because every potential citizen is also a potential tyrant? Is it inevitable that the emotions set loose by the revolution will turn into despotism? Not, Gouges thinks, if it can be stopped by virtue. In this she argued with many of her contemporaries, even Robespierre, who believed the people wanted the good, without necessarily knowing what it was or how to get it. The only remedy for this, the French revolutionaries thought in agreement with Wollstonecraft, was through education. Surprisingly, given how much they disagreed on other topics, Gouges and Robespierre had a very similar view of what such education would imply: traditional schooling would not do, and instead, festivals and theatrical representations should be central to educating the people.

Gouges and Robespierre had a different take on why formal schooling was not likely to succeed in raising the virtue of the people. For Robespierre, it was a question of time. Although he wanted to develop a program of centralised universal education (Robespierre 1910-67, 32,33) – he thought it would take several generations to make sure that the French had the sort of education that was necessary for the flourishing of the republic – and of interests – which the poor needed to become educated in order to develop a critical sense of their own self-interest; but until they were educated, they would not be likely to understand the need to put schooling first (Robespierre 1828, 14).

Gouges had a different objection to formal schooling: she felt that it focused too much on ‘instruction’ i.e. rote learning of facts and texts that had little practical use and were not fitted to the development of virtue. Formal education was also a way of reinforcing class differences (Gouges 1789, 64), and even consolidating slavery (Gouges 1788).

Despite their having different reasons for not trusting the future of the nation’s virtue to formal schooling only, Gouges and Robespierre agreed on the alternative: the people could be taught republican values through a more public and informal system of education: street festivals and the theatre.

Festivals and theatre had long been thought of as a way of educating the masses in the ways the state needed them to be educated. In Ancient Greece, theatrical festivals were valued both as entertainment and as a powerful tool to educate citizens in the ways of the polis and the state devoted a substantial budget to them (Goldhill 1987; Pritchard 2012). While French Revolutionaries looked to Roman models of virtue more than Greek ones, they renewed the Greek tradition of festivals as a way of inculcating the ideals of citizenship into the characters of the French people (Wiles 2011, 172).

On the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, a Festival of Federation was organised on the Champ de Mars, then a large empty space on the outskirts of Paris (now home to the Eiffel Tower). The King, his family and members of the Assembly sat under a canopy at one end; there were benches at the other end for the general public. Lafayette paraded on his white horse followed by members of his National Guard. The whole thing was a rather dignified attempt at honoring the people and their king, and probably succeeded in pleasing some among the people at least.

The next year was perforce different. On 20 June 1790, the King had tried to leave the country, disguised as a valet, and been brought back in disgrace. The Festival took place, but was very low key, with no members of the Assembly taking part (Scurr 2017, 167). Three days later, people gathered on the Champs de Mars again, this time to sign a petition asking for the king to be removed from his duties. Lafayette, who had played such a prominent role in the first gathering, ordered the guards to attack and many died.

Despite this less than impressive start, the idea of the festival as a way of unifying the people, and educating them, stuck with Robespierre who started to think that the best way to educate the French in the ways of citizenships was to give them festivals, but also plays that demonstrated patriotic virtues (Scurr 2017, 329). Robespierre’s fascination with public theatre as civic education culminated, in June 1794, a few weeks before his death, in the Festival of the Supreme Being, to mark a new cult that sought to replace the one started by his Jacobin rival, Hebert, the Cult of Reason (Wiles 2011, 171).

Olympe de Gouges, who had achieved some level of fame after her ‘Rights of Woman’ and other placards that had been pasted throughout Paris, was involved in the organisation of an earlier Festival. The Festival of Law had been decreed in May 1792, to commemorate the death of the Mayor of Etampes, Jaques Guillaume Simonneau, who had been killed by people rioting over the price of grain. The festival was commissioned by the Assembly, and championed by the Girondins, while Robespierre and the Montagnards were busy organizing a rival festival. The official organizer of the Festival of the Law was Quatremere de Quincy but Gouges was responsible for women’s participation in the procession. She included many, both symbolically, as personified reason, liberty and equality, but also as themselves, citoyennes dressed in tricolor or in white, as well as actresses and women artists, marching as representatives of women’s contribution to French culture (Nielsen 2002, 278).

While festivals could educate on specific days of the year, commemorating this or that event, the theatre held more frequent opportunities for showcasing civic virtue. The Jacobins, in particular Robespierre and the painter David, favored plays featuring Roman republican heroes, such as Voltaire’s Brutus which was revived in 1790, and Marie-Joseph Chénier’s Gracchus, which opened in 1792. Chénier was a Jacobin playwright whose play on the massacre of the Protestants, Charles IX had been boycotted by the Comédie Française, resulting in a staged protest at the theatre led by Danton. But Chénier was neither the only playwright to be denied by the actors for political reasons, nor was he the most prolific of revolutionary playwrights. That title goes by right to Olympe de Gouges, who wrote over 40 plays between 1784 and 1793, most of them political, and many commenting on specific events of the revolution (Blanc 2014, 242–244).

Several of Gouges’s political plays are prefaced (or post-faced in one case) with explanations by Gouges of her intentions in writing them. This was often necessitated, not because she was less capable than other authors of conveying her messages in the plays themselves, but because topics that were one week regarded as admirable and republican were often, the next, counter-revolutionary. And while Gouges was not afraid of going against Robespierre and others, she did not want to so inadvertently. Through a revised text of the earlier play Zamore et Mirza that was briefly put on by the Comédie at the end of 1789, her 1792 play l’Esclavage des Noirs offers a preface in which the author denies having been the cause of any violence in the colonies. Gouges distances herself from any violent acts committed during the revolution, and points out that nothing she has written could have encouraged such acts, and that those acts do not invalidate any of her arguments about the wrongness of slavery.

Gouges generally felt that she was misunderstood and that her works were not treated with the respect they were due, and this was clearly because, as a woman, she lacked the support and patronage necessary for dramatic success. Her play Zamore and Mirza was performed in the winter 1789 through the patronage of Jacques-Pierre Brissot, Girondin leader and founder of French abolitionist society, who persuaded the Mayor of Paris, Jean Sylvain Bailly, to put pressure on the actors. But that patronage was not sufficient to ensure that the play would stay on longer than the contracted three nights, and when the actors decided to cancel it under the pretense that it had not made enough money, Gouges wrote to Bailly again, but to no avail. She was simply not important enough.

Contrast her case to that of Chénier, whose Charles IX was also initially refused by the actors of the Comédie Française, but put on in 1789 after Danton and a group of Cordeliers staged a demonstration in the theatre. Chénier was a member of the Cordeliers club as well as a Jacobin, and therefore had the loyalty of a powerful political faction. His play was very well received, mostly because it was sold as a revolutionary play, and because Talma, a popular young republican actor, took on the lead role. But the play itself, in alexandrine, consisting of long speeches by the King, his mother, and a few statesmen, does not offer much in terms of beauty or even entertainment, certainly not compared to Gouges’s swift exchanges and action filled plots. Yet, it was Chénier who was consecrated the dramaturge of the nation, and took it upon himself to rethink the theatre as a school for civic virtue. In the preface to the printed version of Charles IX he explains to his female readers why it is necessary to write plays such as he did (even though they may not enjoy reading them):

Women, timid and sensitive sex, created as a consolation for the sex who supports you, do not fear this austere and tragic picture on political crimes. The theatre has a huge influence on general morality. For a long time it was a school for flattery, blandness and libertinage. We must make it into a school for virtue and liberty (Chénier 1790, 5–6).

The idea that the theatre needed to be and could be reformed in order to help shape virtuous citizens for the new nation certainly did not originate with Chénier. The critique of the theatre as a school for decadence is Rousseau’s, who explained in his Letter to Dalembert that introducing a theatre in the Genevan Republic would bring about the downfall of its citizens’ virtue (Rousseau 1968, 16). But Rousseau, unlike Chénier, did not think that this failure of the theatre could be remedied as drama, he thought, could only imitate the most superficial of human emotions and plays were only successful when they pandered to human weakness (Rousseau 1968, 19). It was in fact Olympe de Gouges, in a short treatise published in 1789 called Primitive Happiness, who argued for a reform of the theatre that would transform public morality. Her proposed theatre (a state theatre to rival the Comédie Française) would be a school for virtue both metaphorically – through the production of plays that would encourage virtue – and literally, as it would incorporate a school for the formation of actors. Students would be recruited from families of talented children, too poor to pay for schooling. They would be given a solid education in the humanities which would prepare them for becoming actors, but also – should they choose not to stay in the theatre – other professions that require being well read. The controlled formation of professional actors would ensure that the theatres would not become a place of debauchery, with actors being recruited because they had powerful patrons (often lovers) and having to prostitute themselves when they did not earn enough through their acting.

Both Robespierre and Gouges, despairing of the ignorance and moral laxity of the poor, felt that an education dispensed in the streets, through festivals (or placards) and in the pit of the theatre was more likely to bring about immediate moral relief than the reform of actual schools. But even this was doomed from the start by tyranny – that of men, who believed that they alone could bring about necessary social and political change, thereby ignoring the efforts of women to help. While Gouges fought to reclaim the theatre from petty tyrants such as the royalist actor Fleury, her efforts were blocked by those who were in the best position to help – the members of the Assemblies or clubs, simply because she was a woman. Those very prejudicial notions she fought were coming in the way of her attempts to educate the French public to think free from prejudices.

4 Revolutions Fast and Slow

David Hume observed that “governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded”, meaning that, while governments act to control their populations, their ability to do this always, ultimately, relies on the acquiescence of those they govern (1764, 32). Wollstonecraft would seem to agree with this, speaking for example of politicians such as Turgot as “contributed to produce that revolution in opinion, which, perhaps, alone can overturn the empire of tyranny” – referring primarily to the deeper principles of liberty and equality that the French population had come to grasp but also to improved financial policies and lack of corruption (1794, 13) – such that there was no longer any possibility of the ancien régime receiving the support of popular opinion. Wollstonecraft, however, extends Hume’s insights to include wider forms of cultural consensus. Whereas Hume focuses directly on support for the form and apparatus of government, including the legitimacy of power and rights to property, Wollstonecraft identifies pervasive and accepted opinions that justify and enable the distribution of social and political power, including especially the subjection of women. “It would”, she argues, “be an endless task to trace the variety of meannesses, cares, and sorrows, into which women are plunged by the prevailing opinion, that they were created rather to feel than reason” (2014, 89).

These opinions are not only grasped in the mind but are reflected and perpetuated in the institutions, customs, and concepts of the political society. They are also internalised so that people feel much attached to the way that they have been governed, both politically and culturally. Opinions in this broadest sense are not easily changed, and nor should they be in a stable and functional society. A successful revolution, then, has the daunting task of addressing both the heads and the hearts of the population, as well as the political and cultural institutions within which these operate. A further complication is that these tasks often proceed at different speeds. People may become intellectually convinced of something – such as the equal citizenship of women – before their habits and dispositions have truly accepted it, and before the background cultural infrastructure can facilitate it. Ideally, then, a revolution should proceed slowly, advancing in incremental steps. Turgot’s mistake, says Wollstonecraft in her Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, was his haste in developing a “plan of freeing France from the fangs of despotism, in the course of 10 years, without the miseries of anarchy” (1794, 13). Later, at the close of Book IV, she presents her argument more fully:

A quick revolution will immediately revert to the previous state of affairs. Rather we must proceed slowly, building on what went before (Our ancestors have labored for us; and we, in our turn, must labor for posterity. It is by tracing the mistakes, and profiting from the discoveries of one generation, that the next is able to take a more elevated stand. The first inventor of any instrument has scarcely ever been able to bring it to a tolerable degree of perfection; and the discoveries of every man of genius, the optics of Newton excepted, have been improved, if not extended, by their followers.—Can it then be expected, that the science of politics and finance, the most important, and most difficult of all human improvements; a science which involves the passions, tempers, and manners of men and nations, estimates their wants, maladies, comforts, happiness, and misery, and computes the sum of good or evil flowing from social institutions; will not require the same gradations, and advance by steps equally slow to that state of perfection necessary to secure the sacred rights of every human creature?) (398–9).

However, although a revolution would ideally proceed in a methodical fashion, in reality Wollstonecraft recognises that this is rarely if ever possible. “It is natural”, she argues, “for men to run out of one extreme into another” (73). Once a revolution starts, it often gathers a momentum of its own. She offers several reasons in her analysis, including the psychological effects on the oppressed on whom had been “imprinted on their character the hateful scars of servitude”, as well as the duplicitous actions of both the privileged, who seek “to gain favor with the people”, and the leaders of factions who “cajole the minds of the vulgar” (283). The combined effect of these groups is to produce a catastrophic state of anarchy that is destructive of the rational and orderly aims of a principled revolution. In this state, another kind of obstacle to reasoned public debate emerges, the cocks strutting on their dunghills, or just as colorfully, “men without principle [who] rise like foam during a storm, sparking on the top of the billow in which it is soon absorbed when the commotion dies away” (74).

The ‘cocks’ are an amorphous and disparate collection of individuals, though they, individually and in aggregate, create a disproportionate threat to order. They are given a voice, and scope for action, by the very social changes they impede and criticize. They then proceed to wreck confusion though their constant and disorderly interference. During Gouges and Wollstonecraft’s lifetimes, this had a particularly nefarious effect on the efforts to democratise the world, and to grant rights to those who had none. Seizing their new status as citizens, those who were unable to comprehend the scope of the reforms simply turned on those who found themselves below them, either because they had not yet achieved the same status – because they were poor, women or black – or because they had lost a previously high status. The ‘cocks’ Wollstonecraft described, strutting from one dunghill to another, entitled by fundamentally aimless individuals, while only superficially affected by the profound changes going on around them were nonetheless instrumental in stopping the progress of humanity in its tracks.

Corresponding author: Alan Coffee, King’s College London, London, UK, E-mail:


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Published Online: 2022-09-26
Published in Print: 2022-11-25

© 2022 the author(s), published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

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