Three Little-Known Local Celebrities


Olympe de Gouges was a playwright, political activist, salon intellectual and advocate of human rights. An early abolitionist and feminist, she was initially a keen supporter of the French Revolution, but became disenchanted with the lack of equality extended to women and the more extremist elements such as the Jacobins. As the Revolution progressed, she became more and more vehement in her writings. The Jacobins arrested her allies, the Girondins, imprisoned them, and sent them to the guillotine in October, while her poster Les trois urnes led to her arrest. That piece demanded a plebiscite for a choice among three potential forms of government: unitary republic, federalist government, or constitutional monarchy. She was executed in 1793 for seditious behaviour.


Nicolas Condorcet was a French philosopher, mathematician, and early political scientist whose Condorcet method in voting tally selects the candidate who would beat each of the other candidates in a run-off election. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he advocated a liberal economy, free and equal public instruction, constitutionalism, and equal rights for women and people of all races. His ideas and writings were said to embody the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment and rationalism, and remain influential to this day. He died a mysterious death in prison in 1794 after a period of flight from French Revolutionary authorities.  Some historians believe that he may have been murdered (perhaps because he was too loved and respected to be executed) or else committed suicide.


Gustave Moynier was a Swiss lawyer and co-founder and longest-serving President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, very active in charitable work during his long life (1826-1910). Differences between pragmatical Moynier and idealistic Dunant developed early over the reach of the organization’s authority and its legal and organizational formation. The key point of dispute was Dunant’s idea to grant neutrality to wounded soldiers and medical staff in order to protect them. Moynier was a determined opponent of this plan, which he did not consider realistic and thought its insistence risked the collapse of the project. He managed to oust Dunant from the organisation and possibly used his influence to make sure that Dunant would not receive any financial assistance from elsewhere when the latter went bankrupt. Moynier was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times, but, unlike Dunant, who was its first recipient in 1901, he never received it. Nor were the two of them ever reconciled.

While the first two are not strictly speaking ‘local’, the buildings at my older son’s schools are named after them, which sparked my curiosity to do a little research on them. They seem to have been strongly influenced by Voltaire, who was a local for over 20 years. Moynier did live in Geneva and even has a manor-house just over the border in France. One of those houses that I regularly drool over…


10 thoughts on “Three Little-Known Local Celebrities”

  1. I came across Olympe de Gouges when I was commissioned to write a little potted history of feminism way back when. I have to confess that I’d not heard of her before then despite her achievements. Delighted that your son’s school commemorates her.

  2. This is really fascinating, Marina Sofia. And I find it especially interesting that they had similar views on some things. I wonder how it is that such influential people can later be, if not completely forgotten, then certainly not given the historical treatment they merit. Of course, there’d be no time to read about everyone who’s been influential in one way or another. But still…

    1. It makes me sad when we read famous works or writers/activists from 200 years ago and say: ‘Well, no wonder they are imperialistic/old-fashioned/sexist/racist etc., because that’s what everyone was like in those days.’, but when we do come across some genuinely progressive thinkers from that period, we don’t acknowledge them enough. But I take your point about it being hard to mention every single person… I’m glad at least some women and minorities are creeping onto the school curriculum.

  3. Condorcet sounds vaguely familiar – I think he may have come up when Scotland was obsessing about electoral systems for the new Parliament back in the ’90s. But the other two – no, I fear I’ve never heard of them.

  4. I’m interested in Moynier. My father was a POW in Italy during the Second World War and Red Cross parcels kept him alive. There was hardly enough food to keep the Italians alive at the time let alone POWs. He was particularly keen on the parcels that came from Canada and when he escaped KLIM tins (Milk spelled backwards) were important. He spent 17 days hiding in a roof and the KLIM tins were used to store water and also urine!

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