Women's March On Versailles: The French Revolution

By Grace Taylor

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.

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. 

Portrait of Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, as painted by Joseph-Désiré Court. (Palace of Versailles/Wikimedia Commons)

The Women's March On Versailles

Though he tried to return order and safety to the city, Lafayette's personal politics didn't actually clash with those of the protesters, as he had long hoped to turn France into a more equal and free society. Just months before, he had worked alongside Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which demanded universal equality under the law and imbued all French citizens with basic inalienable rights and the ability to control taxes. The young Marquis held a unique position in France, as he was respected by the royals for his nobility and military experience but beloved by the Third Estate due to his revolutionary vigor.

With Lafayette’s protective presence and Maillard's organization, the crowd headed to Versailles to bring the King back to Paris and demand widespread legal and economic reforms. They walked six hours through the pouring rain to reach the massive Palace of Versailles, and when the King heard their chants and screams, he knew he couldn't ignore his people any longer. After a short talk with a few of the women, he agreed to sign the Declaration of the Rights of Man into law and even handed out food.

However, his hesitance to accompany the crowd back to Paris sat much worse with them than his charcuterie. While the crowd still had some loyalty left for the King, his Austrian wife, Marie Antoinette, was distrusted and vilified. It was this day that Marie Antoinette is rumored to have quipped "Let them eat cake" when told of the bread shortage, but practically every historian worth their salt has classified this as a rumor. Still, the women feared that she would manipulate the King out of going through with the Declaration if he were allowed to stay in Versailles, so they attacked the palace early the next morning.

Execution of Marie Antoinette in 1793. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Storming The Palace

On October 6, the women found an unguarded entrance, burst into the palace, and swiftly killed the guards they encountered inside. Two of the guards, who had been decapitated, found a shiny new home for their heads atop pikes brandished by the women. Told you they meant business.

Marie Antoinette heard the commotion and fled to the King's chambers just in time to escape the mob. Having been robbed of their initial target, they settled for breaking into her bedroom and destroying its ornate furniture. Lafayette again tried to bring order to the chaos and pleaded with 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. While the crowd cheered the King's words, the Queen was booed until Lafayette knelt by her and offered a kiss to her hand as a show of respect. The protesters quieted, but some resented Lafayette's civility toward the Queen, and his more moderate approach to the French Revolution would eventually get him imprisoned by radicals in 1792. The protesters, whose numbers had swelled to more than 50,000, finally departed alongside the King back to Paris and called an end to the march on October 7.

The Women's March on Versailles was a turning point in the French Revolution, informing the King once and for all that he worked for the people, not the other way around. In 1791, King Louis upheld 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 at the Place de la Concorde before cheering crowds in 1793.  

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Grace Taylor