Women's March On Versailles: The French Revolution

By | October 3, 2020

test article image
People dressed in period costumes take part in the "Fetes Galantes" in the Chateau de Versailles on May 27, 2019. (Getty Images)

Throughout history, women's marches have had major impacts on the political landscape of a nation, from the 1908 march for women's suffrage in England which led to the right to vote to the 2017 Women's March across the world which ushered in the era of #MeToo. However, perhaps the single most influential (and certainly the most violent) massive women-led protest was the one that took place on October 5, 1789 in Versailles, at the dawn of the French Revolution, when a crowd of more than 7,000 women descended upon the royal palace with a thirst for blood.

How Did We Get Here?

Preceding the carnage, France was in a state of great political and economic turmoil, divided into three "Estates" comprising the clergy, the royals and nobles, and everyone else. The wealthy lived in the lap of extreme luxury while most of the Third Estate could barely make ends meet. To make matters worse, the nobility and clergy did not have to pay most taxes, so all of the burden fell onto the backs of the hardworking peasant and merchant class, who were going hungry, thanks to a bad harvest. It's not hard to see why a lot of the nobility wound up losing their heads. Although major revolts like 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 swift or strong enough to improve the lives of everyday people.

test article image
The Women's March on Versailles, 1789. (Bibliothèque nationale de France/Steve Strummer/Wikimedia Commons)

Rioting For Bread

The events of October 5 started the way most bad days do: with errands. The women of Paris gathered in the morning at their local markets to do their grocery shopping and found themselves faced with a steep rise in the price of bread, thanks to the poor harvest and Louis's terrible economic policies.

Outraged by the looming danger of famine that threatened to starve their families while the royal family idled the day away in the notoriously extravagant palace, the women prepared to storm city hall to demand bread. Along the way, many grabbed kitchen knives and other homemade weapons to show that they meant business. At city hall, they stole more weapons and ate every scrap of food they could find.

Revolutionaries like Stanislas-Marie Maillard quickly joined in, and the protest grew rapidly in both size and intensity. In response, the Marquis de Lafayette, a French nobleman and American Revolutionary War hero, rounded up the national guard and attempted to dissuade the growing crowd from using violence.