Women’s March at Versailles The French Revolution!

Throughout history, women’s marches have had major impacts on a nation’s political landscape, from the 1908 march for women’s suffrage in England, which led to the right to vote, to the 2017 Women’s Marches around the world, which ushered in the #MeToo era. However, perhaps the most influential (and certainly the most violent) female-led mass protest was the one that took place on October 5, 1789 in Versailles, at the start of the French Revolution, when a mob of over 7,000 women descended on the palace. real bloodthirsty.

How did we get here?

Before the carnage, France was in a state of great political and economic turmoil, divided into three “Estates” comprising the clergy, royalty and nobles and everyone in between. The wealthy lived in the lap of extreme luxury, while most of the Third Estate barely scraped by. To make matters worse, the nobility and clergy did not have to pay most of the taxes, so the entire burden fell on the peasant and merchant working class, who were starving thanks to a bad harvest. It’s not hard to see why much of the nobility ended up losing their minds. Although major upheavals such as the Storming of the Bastille in July of that year pushed reform to the political front lines, none of King Louis XVI’s actions were quick or strong enough to improve the lives of the common people.

revolt for bread

The events of October 5th started like most bad days: with errands. The women of Paris gathered in the morning at their local markets to do their shopping and found themselves faced with a sharp rise in the price of bread, thanks to a bad harvest and Louis’ dire economic policies. 

Angered by the imminent danger of famine that threatened to starve their families out as the royal family idled the day in the notoriously extravagant palace, the women prepared to storm the town hall to demand bread. Along the way, many picked up kitchen knives and other homemade weapons to show they meant business. At City Hall, they stole more weapons and ate any scraps of food they could find.

Revolutionaries like Stanislas-Marie Maillard quickly joined in, and the protest quickly grew in size and intensity. In response, the Marquis de Lafayette, a French nobleman and hero of the American Revolutionary War, surrounded the national guard and tried to dissuade the growing mob from using violence. 

The Women’s March in Versailles

Although he tried to return order and security to the city, Lafayette’s personal politics did not clash with those of the protesters, as he hoped to transform France into a more equal and free society. Just a few months earlier, he had worked alongside Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which demanded universal equality before the law and imbued all French citizens with inalienable basic rights and the ability to control taxes. . The young Marquis occupied a unique position in France, as he was respected by royalty for his nobility and military experience, but loved by the Third Estate for his revolutionary vigor.

With Lafayette’s protective presence and Maillard’s organization, the mob descended on Versailles to bring the King back to Paris and demand sweeping legal and economic reforms. They walked six hours through pouring rain to reach the massive Palace of Versailles, and when the king heard their chants and screams, he knew he could no longer ignore his people. After a brief conversation with some of the women, he agreed to sign the Declaration of the Rights of Man and even distributed food.

However, his hesitation to follow the crowd back to Paris was far worse for them than his charcuterie. While the crowd still had some loyalty to the king, his Austrian wife, Marie Antoinette, was distrusted and reviled. It was on this day that Marie Antoinette is said to have joked “Let them eat cake” when told about the shortage of bread, but virtually all self-respecting historians have dismissed this as a rumour. Still, the women feared that she would manipulate the king into not going through with the Declaration if he was allowed to stay at Versailles, so they attacked the palace the next morning.

Invading the Palace

On October 6, the women found an unguarded entrance, broke into the palace, and quickly killed the guards they found inside. Two of the guards, who had been beheaded, found a shiny new home for their heads atop spears brandished by the women. He said they meant business.

Marie Antoinette heard the commotion and fled to the King’s chambers just in time to escape the crowd. Having been robbed of their initial target, they resolved to break into her bedroom and destroy her ornate furniture. Lafayette again tried to bring order out of chaos and implored the king to address the crowd outside.

Finally, Louis appeared on an upstairs balcony and promised to go to Paris and sign the Declaration into law. As the crowd applauded the King’s words, the Queen was booed until Lafayette knelt beside her and offered a kiss on her hand as a show of respect. The protesters quieted down, but some resented Lafayette’s civility towards the queen, and his more moderate approach to the French Revolution would eventually get him arrested by radicals in 1792. The protesters, whose numbers had swelled to over 50,000, finally departed beside the king back. to Paris and ended the march on 7 October.

The Women’s March on Versailles was a turning point in the French Revolution, letting the king know once and for all that he worked for the people, not the other way around. In 1791, King Louis confirmed the dissolution of the Three Estates and restructured France as a constitutional monarchy, but it wasn’t enough to save him or his wife from beheading on the Place de la Concorde before applauding crowds in 1793.