Concepts of Equal Marriage in De Gouges and Wollstonecraft's Work

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The statement “by hunting sincerity out of our society” made by Mary Wollstonecraft in her Vindication of the Right of Woman indicates the aim of all revolutionary feminists during the Enlightenment. Feminists such as Olympe de Gouges, who famously and boldly wrote the Déclaration des droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne, Mary Wollstonecraft, who through her troubled personal life took the risk to fight for women and Etta Palm D’Aelders, who represented a powerful 18th century woman that spied as a double agent, must be truly remembered due to their strengths in overcoming a patriarchal society. The Enlightenment or the Age of Reason narrows down to two main concepts: revolutions and discovery. Even though this historical period altered the conception of knowledge and abolished the monarchy, it still remained a static and discriminatory society towards women. Therefore, the modern woman of the 21st century would have never been as free as she is without the intervention of brave women. Enlightenment feminists spread new and fresh ideas to the world which highly impacted people such as Etta Palm D’Aelders. This research aims to illustrate how two role models Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft affected Etta Palm D’Aelders’ ideas.

The Influence of Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft was an English feminist who expressed ideas regarding the equality of sexes and natural rights for women. She was born on the 27th of April 1759 in London and since then dealt with a troubled marriage between her parents. Her father’s abuse towards her mother most likely influenced her opinions regarding a “bondage of marriage”. Later on, she left her devasting experience at home and handled her sister’s legal separation with an abusive husband. In her life, she chose a path to adopt, following her childhood, which was very different from her sister’s chosen path. This indicates a crucial difference between how Mary and her sister reacted to their abusive father: Mary decided to pursue a free life without any constraints to a man, while her sister adhered to the same lifestyle of their mother. Furthermore, she created a school with her friends Eliza and Fanny Blood which then due to financial motifs closed.

The Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft

One of the major experiences was her usual romantic relationships which, in a way, reflected the opposite of her parents’ marriage. Her husband William Godwin, whom she met in 1791, was an English Enlightenment philosopher who is considered one of the first exponents of utilitarianism. They both were against the concept of marriage, especially due to Wollstonecraft’s traumatic childhood experience, but they decided to get married after her pregnancy. Meanwhile, she traveled to Paris in 1793 “to witness the French Revolution firsthand”[footnoteRef:3] and she fell in love with Gilbert Imlay, an American businessman. This relationship received much hatred and threats which led Imlay to hide Wollstonecraft in the American Embassy in England. Both lovers were deeply involved and had a child Fanny Imlay in 1794. During her relationship, Wollstonecraft discovered that her lover had “deserted her”[footnoteRef:4] which brought her to attempt suicide. This moment of her life particularly influenced her due to the fact that she exposed herself and was in a vulnerable position that would let her be easily attacked. Fortunately, she renewed her relationship with Godwin and after her second pregnancy had some complications with the afterbirth. Sadly, she died eleven days after giving birth to the author of Frankenstein: Mary Shelley.

Wollstonecraft was always known in her career due to the successful book A Vindication of the Right of Woman which states precise and clear ideas on the female role in society. She claims that “women had been created for themselves”[footnoteRef:5] and not “merely to gratify the appetite of man”[footnoteRef:6]. Many women, at that time, were considered as species created to serve, to help and assist men throughout their lives. Unfortunately, women were viewed as objects whom by themselves had no meaning or potential. On the contrary, Wollstonecraft and many others realized that women were the last creatures to be formed because of their inner beauty, complexity, and uniqueness. Another important component of Wollstonecraft’s thoughts was the importance of natural rights and education for women. The feminist author and Talleyrand, a diplomatic and French minister, considered that unless the state could prove that women had no ability to think clearly or reason, no natural rights should be declined from women. Therefore, if a woman had the possibility to attend schools and gain a proper education, natural rights would be part of all human beings’ lives. Indeed, Mary Wollstonecraft insisted that “nation education and the rights of women are therefore two sides of the same coin”.

Lastly, an essential opinion of Wollstonecraft which she analyzed and stated in Chapter 5 of A Vindication of the Right of Woman concerns men who previously objectified or wrongly described women. The author directly names people such as James Fordyce, Dr. John Gregory or even women such as Baroness de Staël. Obviously, she reserves most of the chapter to her biggest enemy: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Although his philosophy was focused on the liberty of the society to the state, avoiding a dictatorship, his concerns towards the female role in the world were very close-minded. Rousseau firmly believed that “(a) woman ought to be weak and passive because she has less bodily strength than man”. He also considered the role of women is to please men and “that making herself agreeable to her master is the grand purpose of her existence”. Notably, Rousseau expressed in Émilie that the difference between a boy and a girl is observable since a young age because boys play a sport while girls play with dolls. Wollstonecraft argues against all of his opinions, claiming that girls are giving dolls to play, and boys are told to be more active in sports. She also strongly affirms that in France the distinction between girls and boys happens due to the fact that French society cares more about the appearance than the substance. Throughout the entire chapter, Wollstonecraft declares her main point which focuses on the importance of a woman for her uniqueness and not because of what she ought to bring to a man. In the end, Mary Wollstonecraft has proven greatly her concept that has inspired a change in the 18th century patriarchal society.

The Influence of Olympe de Gouges

Olympe de Gouges was an influential French feminist of the 18th century who, as opposed to Madame de Staël, focused on the equality between men and women without any concerns regarding the Queen of France Marie-Antoinette. De Gouges was born in 1748 at Montauban and according to her fictionalized biography Mémoire de Madame Valmont, she was the illegitimate daughter of Marquis Le Franc de Pompignan. In this biography, the nobleman de Pompignan, De Gouges’ father, was not allowed to marry her mother Anne-Olympe Mouisset due to the social status difference. Consequently, Anne-Olympe and a butcher, Pierre Gouze, were in a marital relationship until de Pompignan came back from Paris. Unfortunately, Anne-Olympe Mouisset was pregnant with the nobleman’s baby but he already married a young lady with his same status. Later, Olympe de Gouges was raised by Pierre Gouze and Mouisset due to the fact that de Pompignan neglected any ties with Mouisset. The Mémoire de Madame Valmont was released the year of de Pompignan’s death in which de Gouges “denounced the hypocrisy and fanaticism of those who valued respectability above natural affection and ties of blood”.

The Portrait of Olympe de Gouges

During her young age, Olympe de Gouges had particularly difficult experiences such as her early marriage “qu’elle n’aimait pas” or which she did not approve of. She had a son and quickly became a widow which brought to her life extreme sadness. Though this early marriage was not one of the happiest moments of de Gouges’ life, it most certainly inspired her opinion towards the liberty of a woman to marry whomever she wants. In fact, de Gouges original and distinctive childhood and early adulthood influence many of her feminist ideas. De Gouges’ main composition is La Déclaration des droits de la femme et la Citoyenne, as opposed to the Declaration of the rights of men and focuses on the freedom and rights that must be given to women. A specific article in this Declaration that is connected to her childhood is Article XI. As a consequence of the fact that she was an illegitimate daughter, de Gouges decided to protect any daughter that could possibly be mistreated by their own father. Article XI gives the right to declare who had fathered an individual. It claims: “The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights of woman, since that liberty assures recognition of children by their fathers. Any female citizen thus may say freely, I am the mother of a child which belongs to you, without being forced by a barbarous prejudice to hide the truth”. Secondly, de Gouges addresses the significance of natural sentiments as “moral guides”. She considers natural rights just as Catharine Macaulay, an English republican historian who wrote The History of England from the Accession of James I to the Revolution, but de Gouges believes that natural rights are “recognized by the use of reason”. Even though La Déclaration des droits de la femme et la Citoyenne brought the life of de Gouges to a tragic end, she was a brave author that must be accredited for being one of the many catalysts of the changes for the role of women in society.

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Another work of de Gouges that concerns equality between men and women was Le Contrat Social Homme et Femme. The idea of a social contract was initially proposed by Hobbes as a contract between the people and the state. This contract represents many concepts such as marriage as involving a community of goods. She also suggested that children have the right to “use their parents’ names and that no one should be able to deny their biological children”. Lastly, de Gouges presented a law that allowed a woman that had a child with poor financial conditions to force the father, if rich, to adopt the child. Overall Olympe de Gouges articulated many of her concepts through a concrete approach, by offering the people a chance to understand the true role of a woman.

The intriguing woman: Etta Palm D’Aelders

Etta Palm D’Aelders was a Dutch feminist outspoken woman who contributed immensely to the revolutionary ideas of the 1700s against the patriarchal society. This occurred through her well-known speeches that allowed the population to be aware of the circumstances in which they lived in. D’Aelders was born in April 1743 in Groningen, in the Netherlands, as daughter to a Protestant middle-class merchant, who died when she was 6 years old, and a mother who was hated by her family due to the fact that she “took over the management of the pawnshop (of her husband)”, which made her richer than her husband. These complications throughout her infancy led Etta Palm D’Aelders to run away from her house and to elope at only 19 years old, just like Olympe de Gouges. Unfortunately, her husband Christian Ferdinand Lodewijk Palm, a student in humanities, disappeared later in the West Indies after he asked for a divorce. This disappearance due to her apparent unfaithfulness in her marriage led to her being a single mom raising a little child, who sadly died after several months.

Etta Palm D’Aelders and her lover

An important aspect of her professional and personal life was her many lovers who made her gain extremely powerful contacts. Firstly, she moved to Paris in 1773 to become the informant for the princess Wilhelmina, wife of the Prince Stadtholder William IV. Then she began her business where she “uses lovers to collect information and who plays around a bit, morally as well as politically”. Later on, D’Aelders was contacted by the French secret services to become an espionage at French court through her lovers. This intriguing work influenced significantly her life helping her to become a Baroness, changing her role in society and allowing her to be more respected, noticed, and to support her own feminist ideas. It also made D’Aelders explore questions of the “transnational transfer of political culture”[footnoteRef:18] between Netherlands and France. Through this considerable upgrade, she was involved in the Friends of Truth which was “a political club that admitted both women and men” without asking women to succumb to men’s ideas. D’Aelders continued to progress in her life and social status through speeches regarding the role of a woman but which ended her to be imprisoned. Once released from prison, D’Aelders’ health deteriorated, and another brave and smart person was gone fighting for the liberty of women.

Etta Palm D’Aelders was one of the most outstanding feminist figures of the Enlightenment because she represented the channel of communication between “two intertwined nations” which were France and the Dutch Republic. Indeed, in the Patriots and Liberators of Simon Schama, the author describes her as a double agent. Her first important job of “communication” was when she was demanded by the Prime Minister De Maurepas to understand what the Dutch Republic society thought about the English-American war. The French government was willing to gain the Dutch alliance for “its pact with America as announced to England in 1778”. Thanks to this opportunity, Etta Palm D’Aelders became fully involved in states affairs. In addition to this, she contributed to preventing a conspiracy in 1784 against Van Brunswijk, the personal counselor of Prince Stadtholder William IV. In 1781 many patriots of the Prince’s wife, the Prussian Princess Wilhelmina, rebelled. This made the Prussian army intervene and the patriot party fled to France. Therefore, this chaotic situation started also in France and could have created a civil war. Fortunately, Etta Palm D’Aelders interfered making the French army stop its involvement in the conflict. All of these events demonstrated D’Aelders’ great abilities in managing communication between the Netherlands and France.

Like many other feminists, Etta Palm D’Aelders had her own political ideas. She believed in the equality of sexual liberty and marriage and opposed to the law that gave men the right to complain to the police regarding their wives’ infidelity. This opposition is most certainly based on the fact that she experienced disloyalty in her own marriage and considered it a personal matter which should not be discussed with the police. An essential idea of D’Aelders was stated in one of her speeches: “Oh! Gentlemen, should you wish us to be zealous for the happy constitution which restores to men their rights, begin then by being just to us; that from henceforth we should be your voluntary companions and not your slaves”. Lastly, D’Aelders, just like Wollstonecraft with Rousseau, had a pretty tense relationship with Keralio-Robert. Their differences concerned especially the question about the most adequate constitutional system. In the end, D’Aelders’ ideas influenced states such as the Dutch Republic and France and the society of those countries.

The Influence of Olympe de Gouges’ and Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas on Etta Palm D’Aelders

Etta Palm D’Aelders was a strong advocate of the feminist ideas in the 18th century, but still based most of her beliefs on Wollstonecraft’s and Olympe De Gouges’ primary concepts. Firstly, De Gouges’ and Wollstonecraft’s ideas spread through many of their written work and many salons. The salons were especially present in the houses of the elite such as Etta Palm D’Aelders. In these gatherings, during the Enlightenment, intellectuals reunited in order to discuss the new revolutionary ideas. Furthermore, an important similarity and recurring aspect between De Gouges, Wollstonecraft and D’Aelders was the equality in marriage. De Gouges considers marriage as a community of goods and recalls in this ceremony, the contract between men and women. While Wollstonecraft, although maybe not as explicitly, claims that women were not established to serve anyone. This revokes the concept of a marriage in which neither a woman nor a man is submitted to one another. D’Aelders affected by her personal life and feminists, such as De Gouges and Wollstonecraft, believed that men could not complain about their wives’ infidelity. Another similarity between De Gouges and Wollstonecraft is the importance of children which probably led to D’Aelders wish for liberty. Wollstonecraft claims that natural rights must be given to everyone as well as education because they both intertwine and are related to one another. De Gouges states that a woman has the right to tell the truth about that child’s origins without hiding anything. These beliefs from two of the most influential women in the Enlightenment impacted Etta Palm D’Aelders’ thoughts based on the equality between men and women on any occasion.

This research has shown how both De Gouges and Wollstonecraft developed thoughtful concepts on equality regarding marriage, sexes, education and natural rights. Through their writings these authors helped shape the revolutionary ideas of Etta Palm D’Aelders, who then influenced many state affairs. Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist ideas were particularly affected by her childhood. She believed that women should be independent because they were not created to submit to anyone else. On the other hand, De Gouges was known for her fictionalized biography which was reflected clearly in Article XI. De Gouges considered that natural rights are moral guides for the society and she created a contract between men and women. Lastly, Etta Palm D’Aelders was known for her intriguing espionage job. The growth of her contacts through her various lovers made her become a baroness. She was politically involved in France and in the Dutch Republic and she particularly focused on the equality in marriage. In the end, this essay indicates how all the recurring aspects between these three brave women demonstrates the influence that De Gouges and Wollstonecraft had on Etta Palm D’Aelders.

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