January 31, 2018

A French Women's March Took Down a King

The recent turnout of hundreds of thousands of women for the first anniversary of the international Women’s March, makes this an ideal moment to revisit the astonishing victory against tyranny of the Women’s March on Versailles in 1789.

This year's massive anniversary protest comes amidst the huge “Me Too” movement, and an explosion of lawsuits denouncing sexual harassment in the workplace.  There is a feeling of being in the midst of bona fide social change that will celebrated on International Women's Day next month.  

At the marches in Paris, some protesters waved placards recalling another pivotal march that changed history — an event on a par with the storming of the Bastille. 

Paris protester last year recalls the 1789 march
Following widespread food riots in Paris, seven thousand women set forth in an armed march to take flour from the king’s stores 12 miles away in Versailles. Revolutionaries seized the moment, and forced the king to sign the recently composed “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” so ending his absolute rule.  The king and his entourage were dragged back to the capital as prisoners. It was a turning point, signalling a shift in power from the nobility to the common people.
Comparing elements of revolutionary France and current events isn’t so far-fetched.  Civil unrest in Paris was fuelled by paranoid plots in the press and fake news, at a time when the cost of bread rose to an average 50 percent of wages.  Propaganda accused nobles of starving them deliberately.  Misogynist and xenophobic blame lashed against the foreign queen, Marie-Antoinette.  She became known as l’Autri-chienne, a French play on words referring to her as Austrian bitch, hated for lavish spending during times of public austerity.  

Another factor was the staggering inequality of the ancien régime, in which the clergy and nobles, or first and second estates, held vast wealth and paid no taxes.  The third estate, or 97 percent, was heavily taxed for foreign wars, including the American Revolution which brought France close to ruin.  Certain parallels didn’t escape Time Magazine, displaying Trump as the 2016 “person of the year” on a throne carved with a fleur-de-lis, the symbol of the French monarchy. The 2017 Time person of the year cover was a group of women representing the “Me Too” campaign.

Ensconced for over a century in the luxurious Versailles Palace, 12 miles from Paris, the nobility had long been isolated from the impoverished city mobs. Because their rulers were so out of touch, the new Assembly’s  “Declaration of the Rights of Man” pressed for the king to reside in Paris, in earshot of his subjects’ demands for a constitutional monarchy.

Common citizens discovered a new role in politics.  They attacked the Bastille Prison, plundering its arms and gunpowder, dismantling this symbol of despotism stone by stone. Women took part as never before, joining revolutionary crowds, publishing political tracts, and plays with a full range of opinions. Olympe de Gouges wrote the stillborn “Declaration of the Rights of Woman,” that was way before its time.  Yet it was illiterate women who led the spectacular charge on the king’s authority.

On October 5, 1789, a crowd of market women gathered near the city hall to protest bread shortages.  To tolling church bells, more poured out from all over the city, swelling the crowd to seven-thousand strong. News that the king was sending troops against them infuriated the fearsome fishmongers, les poissardes, muscular from carting boxes and wielding fish knives, and others brandishing pikes and scythes. A mob raided the city hall for weapons including several cannons.  Shrewd activists shouted, “A Versailles!

They trudged six hours through the autumn rain, gathering followers, and demanding the capture of Louis and death of Marie-Antoinette. Arriving exhausted at the Palace of Versailles, they laid siege to the court. A delegation of six women accompanied the President of the Assembly to the king’s apartment, where Louis promised a provision of food, but refused an immediate move to Paris.

As the crowd grew to 60 thousand, the king finally signed the “Declaration of the Rights of Man.” By this time, the Marquis de Lafayette had arrived with an army of men to back the women, who huddled all night by bonfires at the palace gate, some clamoring for blood.

At daybreak, a wave of women broke through a gate, violence boiling into savagery. They decapitated guards, impaling their heads on pikes.  Forcing their way into the palace, they shouted for the queen’s entrails, an arm or leg. If the queen hadn’t fled barefoot to the king’s chambers, she might have been torn apart. Instead, the attackers shredded her mattress. By afternoon, the king and his entourage were en route to Paris, flanked by wagons full of flour for the triumphant marchers, some astride cannons boasting they’d brought back “the baker and the baker’s wife,” who remained under house arrest until their eventual execution. The Assembly hailed the women as “Mothers of the Nation.” 

Recent women’s activism has been built on and inspired by such acts of continual struggle and courage by ordinary women over centuries to assert the self-evident truth that “women’s rights are human rights.”

A reminder of a line-up of events to celebrate WICE's 40th Anniversary!

Date:        February 12, 2018
Time:       19h - 21h
Location: Highlander Pub
                  8 rue de Nevers
                  75006 PARIS
Metro:       Mabillion

Tickets: 25 for Members and Guests, which includes a glass of wine, beer or a soft drink.

Book your tickets here, for what promises to be a great night out! 

For more details about WICE's 40th Anniversary and our other courses and events, check out the new WICE 40 page.

post by Elizabeth Bouché

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