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October 5, 1789: A crowd of Parisian women march on Versailles.

The Women’s March on Versailles was one of the early significant events of the French Revolution. It took place three months after the Storming of the Bastille and a little over a month after the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man by the National Constituent Assembly - so the spirit of revolution and ill feelings toward the government were high. The principal and immediate motivator for this episode was the continuing famine and scarcity of bread, which was especially acute in Paris and surrounding areas, but the march itself was not entirely a spontaneous event. An organized march on Versailles had been championed in August by the Marquis of Saint-Huruge to protest the King’s “strangulation” of the Assembly through his oppressive vetoes.

But the Women’s March rallied around a cry for food, precipitated by reports of a lavish welcoming banquet conducted by military officers at Versailles, which itself was a symbol of the monarchy and its excess. Rallied by the beat of a drum, women gathered at the markets and then made their way through the city, armed with pitchforks and knives and accompanied by some men - including Stanislas-Marie Maillard, who later wrote an account of the event. In six hours, the crowd reached Versailles. The next morning, some members of the crowd burst through an unguarded gate, killed and beat several guardsmen, and narrowly missed the queen, who managed to escape. The crowd was pacified temporarily by the appearance of the queen with the Marquis de Lafayette on a balcony, where they met the rioters. Despite this goodwill, the people (now numbering at around 60,000) were imbued with a great sense of power over the royal family, whom they escorted to the Palais des Tuileries in Paris. 

It should be noted that while the bread shortage was the catalyst to the march, the king’s refusal to ratify the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the proposed Constitutional Articles from the previous August (which included a cessation of feudal dues) were also powerful motivating factors and one of the reasons the march attracted bourgeois support. 

But since people marching were poor and primarily women, their desires have been largely compartmentalized and dismissed as being nothing more than a blind cry for food. The reality is that they were more politically minded than given credit for. They drew a distinction between their desire for bread and their contended political rights, for when a royalist promised them that an absolute king would not let them starve they responded with how “they asked for bread but not at the price of liberty.”

This is alluded to in the above post with a vague reference to the tyrannical veto but I just wanted to underscore: the so-called benevolent King Louis XVI would not even submit to the paltriest of paltry reforms. He had to be cajoled with force from the very beginning and was never the saint of Constitutionalism that some of his latter-day apologists have made him out to be.

(via unhistorical)