At the beginning of the French Revolution, when the Parisians had nothing to eat, several thousand women took things into their own hands. Everyone knows about the storming of the Bastille, but there was another important, but lesser known, moment in the Revolution that was led by the ladies.
Many people get cranky when they’re hungry, but these Parisian women take the cake (I mean the bread).
It was three months after the storming of the Bastille, which signaled the beginning of the French Revolution, and there was still a rumbling in the streets of Paris. It was coming from the stomachs of the starving Parisians. The women of Paris were fed up (so to speak) with these food shortages and decided to take matters into their own hands.
The Women Organize
On the morning of October 5, 1789, the women who worked in the Paris markets had gone to work on an empty stomach, as usual. They were setting up their stalls as the sun came up when they heard the beat of a marching drum – and they all knew what it meant. They grabbed anything that looked like a weapon, left their kiosks, and fell in behind the drummer marching toward Paris City Hall. Along the way, they rang church bells which brought out more women to join them. By the time they reached City Hall, they were 6,000 to 7,000 strong and were armed with spikes, garden tools, or anything sharp they had at hand.
The City Hall hadn’t yet opened for the day when the women broke into the building and took all the guns they could find. Now well armed, they started to march toward the Palace of Versailles. As they passed the police station, they took some cannons to add to their arsenal. Their numbers grew as every woman they met along the way joined the march – either willingly or otherwise.
They Want Bread
What motivated these women to march 13 miles (21 kilometers) to Versailles on a rainy October morning? It was simple, they were hungry and, more importantly, their children and families were hungry. They needed bread, which at that time, made up almost 90% of the diet of the lower classes. They had expected the Revolution to make life better, but the Parisians were still lacking bread and there were rumors of a “famine pact” among the aristocrats who were trying to starve out the Revolution.
Meanwhile, at the Palace of Versailles, it was reported that there was an abundance of bread. “To Versailles for bread” the women shouted with their weapons held high. They were on a mission to see the King and demand bread. Then just to make sure there would be an end to these food shortages, they were going to bring the King and his family back to Paris.
The King at Versailles
The King, Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette were still living in their luxurious palace at Versailles with their heads still attached. The revolutionaries didn’t immediately get rid of the King, or even wish him ill, they just wanted him to give the people a say in the government and to do away with the privileges for the noble classes. So far, the King had been trying to avoid these issues by refusing to sign the laws presented to him by the newly-formed National Assembly. The people of Paris felt that the King was out of touch and were calling for him to move to the city where he could see for himself the condition of the poor.
The final straw had been a banquet at Versailles a few evenings earlier. King Louis was feeling a bit insecure with all the revolutionary activities going on, so he called for the Regiment of Flanders, a corps of professional soldiers, to come to Versailles. Marie Antoinette held a banquette for them, and they drank, ate, denounced the revolution and supposedly stomped on the blue, white, and red rosettes (cocardes tricolors) which were symbols of the Revolution.
This was more than a group of women with hungry families could take. A newspaper printed by a radical revolutionary, Marat, plastered Paris with a call to arms and it was these women who answered the call and took up their arms.
They Demand Bread
They marched all morning in the rain and arrived in front of the Palace in the afternoon, soaked and muddy but still determined. Four women were chosen to have an audience with his Majesty and to state their case. The King listened sympathetically and promised to send provisions to Paris. This little group was awed by the King’s kindness and concern for them, but the crowd outside wasn’t so easily convinced.
They Attack the Palace
They broke through the gates of the stables and settled in front of the chateau. That evening they were joined by another group of women (and some men) who had come to help. They built a large bonfire and, since they had no marshmallows to roast, they chanted revolutionary slogans all through the night.
In the early morning, they fought with the kings guards, broke into the palace, and headed for the Queens apartments. Marie Antoinette was especially hated by the revolutionaries because they blamed her extravagant spending for the country’s financial problems. And even though there’s no evidence that Marie Antoinette ever said, “If they have no bread, let them eat cake,” it certainly represented the King’s and Queen’s ignorance of the situation in their country. The agitated intruders managed to get to the entrance to the Queen’s apartments but she had escaped with her children through a secret passage to the King’s chambers.
The King Gives In
The mob outside was agitated by rumors that the Royal Family had escaped from the palace, so La Fayette, who was commander of the National Guard, convinced the King and Queen to appear on the balcony. When the Royals stepped out, the crowd quieted, as most of them still respected the King. Louis declared that he and his family would voluntarily accompany them to Paris and that he was placing himself and his family at the mercy of his good and faithful subjects.
These women had finally gotten through to the King that he could no longer ignore the people of France and their needs. But most importantly they were bread-winners: they had won the bread to feed their families. They prepared to escort the Royal Family to Paris in a rather odd procession.
At the head of the parade was the National Guard, each one with a loaf of bread on the end of his sword. Then, walking alongside about fifty wagonloads of wheat and flour, came the women, armed with spikes, guns, tree branches and cannons. Next, it was the king’s soldiers, disarmed and wearing the cocarde tricolore that they had been trampling a few nights before at the party. After them, was the carriage with the Royal Family followed by La Fayette.
As they marched along, the women chanted, “We won’t lack bread anymore; we’ve brought back the baker, the baker’s wife, and the baker’s boy.”
It Takes a Woman
Even after the storming of the Bastille and the formation of the new government, the King hadn’t fully comprehended that he no longer had total control. It took a group of women who knew how to make their point, to help him understand. Even a king is no match for 7,000 hungry and cranky, armed women!
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Wonderful article. Women rule!
Thanks! We do, don’t we!
I think some of these women will have been Les Poissardes, the fish sellers, strong working women.
Yes, it started with the women working in the markets and they picked up “recruits” along the way.
Margo, I love these terrific blog posts! I wish you had been my history teacher growing up!
Thanks, Bob. But I’m much too young to have been your history teacher! 🙂 🙂
Thanks Margo, but let’s not forget what usually happens after all Revolutions & this includes those of the late 1700s, 1840s, 1900s, & pre/post 2nd World War, revolutions turn into ages of terror, vandalism, betrayal, extreme violence, treachery, paranoia, genocide, petty jealousies, & returns to unjust systems & dictatorships under different names & guises, in which women, children & the vulnerable still suffer & are the victims…This is usually the forgotten history too
Thanks Symon. Interesting observation.