3 November 1793: A French feminist loses her head
The outspoken opinions of playwright and social reformer Olympe de Gouges see her end up on the guillotine
The French playwright Olympe de Gouges was, by any standards, one of the most extraordinary women of her day. Born in 1748, she established her own theatre company, campaigned against slavery and even published a pamphlet, Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, which begins with the words: “Women are born free and remain equal to men in rights.”
But as the French Revolution slid into sectarian bloodshed, Gouges’ outspokenness made her dangerous. By 1793, horrified by the extremism of Robespierre and the Jacobins, she had produced a subversive poster demanding a national referendum that would let people choose between a republic, a loose federation or a restored monarchy. That was too much for the regime. Shortly after her friends in the moderate Girondin faction had been arrested, the Jacobins came for her, too.
On 4 November a Parisian chronicler recorded her fate. “Yesterday, at seven o’clock in the evening, a most extraordinary person called Olympe de Gouges who held the imposing title of woman of letters, was taken to the scaffold,” he wrote. “She approached the scaffold with a calm and serene expression on her face, and forced the guillotine’s furies, which had driven her to this place of torture, to admit that such courage and beauty had never been seen before.”
It was a tragic end for such a brave woman. One Jacobin declared that her fate was a lesson for every woman who “abandoned the cares of her home, to meddle in the affairs of the Republic” | Read more about women and the French Revolution
Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries…
3 November 1640
The Long Parliament was assembled at Westminster. Sitting throughout the Civil Wars, it was purged by the army in 1648 and finally forcibly dissolved by Cromwell in 1653. It was briefly reinstated in 1660 following the collapse of the Protectorate.
3 November 1428
England loses one of its best commanders of the Hundred Years’ War when Thomas Montacute, fourth Earl of Salisbury, dies after being hit in the face by a cannon shot at the siege of Orleans.
3 November 1911
Swiss-born American racing driver Louis Chevrolet and William Durant, the ousted founder of General Motors, launched the Chevrolet Motor Car Company.
3 November 1957
Russians launch Sputnik II. On board is the dog Laika, the first known living animal to travel in space.
3 November 1969
In a television address to the American people US president Richard Nixon asked the “great silent majority” to support his plan to win “peace with honour” in Vietnam by gradually shifting the burden of fighting onto the South Vietnamese.
3 November 1918 German sailors mutiny at Kiel
As the First World War draws to a close, their refusal to go to sea launches a revolution
Germany’s revolution began in the drill ground at the naval base at Kiel, on the Baltic coast. It was the afternoon of 3 November 1918, more than a week after the imperial naval command had ordered the fleet to sail out and make a last, despairing stand in the North Sea against the British.
For weeks the war had been going badly; few doubted that the mission meant suicide. With the crews having refused to obey, recent days had seen a standoff between officers and men. Some of the mutineers had been thrown into prison. The mood was tense.
Now, joined by local trade unionists, thousands of sailors gathered at the drill ground, calling for the release of their imprisoned comrades and chanting “Peace and bread!” As they began to march towards the prison, soldiers opened fire; within moments, seven men lay dead. That night the revolution began in earnest. By the next morning, groups of mutineers were roaming the streets of Kiel, while sailors and soldiers were forming elected councils, modelled on the soviets established in Russia a year earlier. With more men joining the uprising, order collapsed; by the evening, Kiel was effectively in the hands of the rebels. When Social Democratic politician Gustav Noske arrived in the city that night, ostensibly to calm the mutiny, it was too late. Instead of giving up, the mutineers elected him chairman of the Soldiers’ Council.
News of the revolt was spreading throughout Germany. After years of war and starvation, public morale had cracked. Within three days, almost every major city had gone over to the revolution. By the afternoon of 9 November Germany was a republic. Two days later, the war was over.