February 21st, 2017 marked one of the largest protests in world history. The Women’s March on Washington drew an estimated 500,000 people to the flagship march in Washington, while officials report that marches took place on all seven continents, in 673 places worldwide totaling an estimated 5 million participants worldwide! Word had spread like wildfire through social media as marches were organized in over 80 countries. What was the impetus for such an event? The inauguration of the Trump administration into the U.S. White House, one of the most powerful positions of authority in the world, following a corrupt presidential campaign fueled with misogyny. While the main message of the march was that Women’s Rights are Human Rights, the agenda included Ending Violence, Reproductive Rights, LGBTQIA Rights, Workers Rights, Civil Rights (Black Lives Matter), Disability Rights, Immigrant Rights, and Environmental Justice.
The unification of women seeking to dismantle system of oppression is not a new concept. In fact, as a Francophile and independent scholar of the French Revolution, the Women’s March on Washington was an immediate reminder to me of the Women’s on Versailles.
In Paris on the morning of October 5, 1789, a young girl beat upon a drum summoning a call to action. The crowd grew up to 10,000 people, mainly working-class women from the faubourgs of Paris, who assembled at the Hôtel de Ville (city hall) commencing the historical event now known as the Women’s March on Versailles. Hailstorms and poor harvests had caused a grain shortage and subsequently, the price of bread to rise. As peasants died of starvation a lavish banquet had been held on October 1st to welcome the Royal Guards, who were also seen as an affront to the peoples own National Guard. This mockery of the peasants suffering enraged the women of Paris who could not feed their own families. After pillaging the Hôtel de Ville looking for bread and weapons, they set out on the 20 km march to Chateau Versailles, knowing that the King, his family and the royal court, were never without bread. As they marched, their numbers grew, joined by women and men alike.
While the Women’s March on Washington of 2017 was noted as being a peaceful protest, the same cannot be said for the Women’s March on Versailles of 1789. Peaceful negotiations by the men who spoke in the Estates General had been proving ineffective, inspiring the women to take matters into the own hands through any means necessary. Often referred to as a mob or horde, these were peasant women who did not have the privilege of an education. The core group who led the March on Versailles were the tough, burly women known as poissards who worked in the fish markets of Fauubourg St. Antoine and Les Halles. They armed themselves with pikes, pitchforks and large knives. Protestors were urged to take any weapons that they could lay their hands upon, including muskets recently gained during the Storming of the Bastille that summer and even a cannon.
When the marchers arrived at Chateau Versailles, they found the gates, which were usually open, closed and guarded. Word had reached the palace before their arrival. They demanded to speak to the King. The King agreed to hear their grievances and the guard allowed a handful of women to enter. Following a long evening of negotiations, the King and his family slept under close guard. As dawn broke, the women breached their way through a side entrance and led the angry mob into the palace in search of the Queen, whom they intended to slaughter. Violence broke out as the Royal Guard attempted to defend their charges. Two unfortunate guards were beheaded and their heads were proudly paraded on pikes. The angry mob arrived in the Queen’s bedchambers just after she had escaped through a hidden doorway; history alleges that they stabbed away at her bed perhaps thinking she was still in it. The royal family hunkered in fear of their lives in the King’s chambers at the mercy of their subjects. General Lafayette mediated negotiations, which would spare their lives for the time being if certain demands were met.
The actions of the Women’s March on Versailles reaped three great rewards. Firstly, they received a signed order by the King for any delayed wheat shipments to be dispatched to Paris immediately. Secondly, the King finally agreed to sign the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which he had until then delayed doing. This was a momentous occasion – not unlike the signing of the American Constitution. Lastly, the King and his family under extreme duress reluctantly agreed for him and his family to move to Paris immediately, where they would be at the mercy and of the people. They established themselves in the vacant Tuileries Palace and were essentially under house arrest. The National Assembly also moved from Versailles and was established nearby where progress could occur more effectively. Unfortunately, the rights that the women who had marched 20 km in the rain and spent the night on the cold, damp street, fighting to bring the King to accountability, were rights that would not be their own. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen did not include any rights for women, who were merely “passive citizens” unable to vote and discouraged from political involvement in favor of tending to their “natural” place at home raising their families of a new generation of Republicans.
The day after the Women’s March on Washington, the newly inaugurated U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn't these people vote?”. Unlike the French women of 1789, the American women of 2017 held the right to vote. They also had the right to education, unlike their French predecessors. Education has long been a criteria point in the decision on whether or not to grant voting rights to certain groups of people. It has been argued that those who are not educated are not well informed enough to vote. And so, while the historical impact of the 10,000 people who marched to Versailles held a lastly and active effect on French history, it is not yet clear what, if any effect the marching of 5,000,000 people who participated in the Women’s March of 2017, will have on American history.
- Holly Marie Armishaw (November 2017)
Moore, Lucy. Liberty – The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France. Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.
Poirson, Martial. Amazones de la Revolution (Des Femmes dans la tourmente de 1789). Gourcuff Gradenigo, 2016.
Nagel, Susan. Marie-Thérèse: The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter. Bloomsbury, 2008.