The Heart of Marie Antoinette
Much has been written about Marie Antoinette’s head, for she lost it by guillotine during the French Revolution in 1793. But what of her heart? We know that women have been excluded from history, and that the ignorance engendered by our exclusion has profound consequences, chief among them the abject state imposed by apparent lack of tradition. This is, ultimately, one of the two major reasons women’s history is so important to the progress of women. The other reason is that what is already written is often false, the story shaped to fit the narrative of powerful men who sought to maintain that power. Not only must we write down our histories, we must also inspect what is already available and correct the record where it is wrong.
Few cases explicate this dynamic better than the story of Marie Antoinette, and the story of 7,000 more women you’ve most likely never heard of. This is the story of women in petticoats and aprons, mothers, workers, anguished French women who marched to appeal to the only feminine authority they had in the corporeal world, the Queen of France. This is the story of their appeal and the limits of her authority, and of a great document that you’ve also most likely never heard of, a document which calls us across time to examine exactly how far we’ve come as women.
The Women’s March on Versailles
Picture it, if you will: a sea of long skirts, of pitchforks and pikes, of muskets scattered in the arms of scarfed women. These women were on their way to the vast country palace of the King, to demand bread and to return the royal family to Paris, where it must confront the plight of its people. As they walked, the women sang, and more women joined. That’s what the scene looked like on the Women’s March to Versailles, also known as the Women’s Bread March, an event important to the French Revolution.
The French Revolution began after a May 1789 meeting of the Estates-General, the three classes of citizens recognized by the French state: The church, the nobility, and the common people. By summer of that same year, the Third Estate (common people) signed an oath to persist in the fight for a national constitution, and overtook the Bastille (a prison), creating a flashpoint for revolution. A number of factors contributed to Revolution, including the national debt and the price of bread, which at the time cost roughly 50% of a family’s income. During the Revolution bread prices continued to rise dramatically, and bread shortages occurred.
On the morning of October 5, 1789, a group of peasant women gathered in the marketplace in Paris, where bread had once again become a scarcity. Rumors had run rampant for days that the reason for the bread shortage was that the royal family was hoarding grain. Outraged, several thousand women banded together and marched on Versailles, the luxury palace of King Louis XVI and his family, including his wife, Marie Antoinette. As they reached the city limits, their number had grown to 6,000 as more and more women left their homes to join the march.
By the time they reached Versailles, they had 7,000 women to face down 20,000 French National Guardsmen, who were sent to protect the royal family and control the crowd. The next morning the marchers managed to break into the castle and, after a search for the Queen, gathered in the palace courtyard chanting for her.
Most of what you’ve been taught about Marie Antoinette may be wrong. In childhood and in history classes through college we are taught that she was the dancing, laughing aristocrat so out of touch with her starving people that she once callously uttered the phrase, “Let them eat cake.” Put that story out of your mind; it didn’t happen. It was a popular story told about many princesses of many realms, a feudal legend akin to our own urban legends.
The story of the Women’s March on Versailles and her actions in response to it may better illuminate her character. According to biographer Lady Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette was neither callous nor ignorant, as the she has often been painted, and most of the “facts” we recite about her are untrue, a product of rampant rumor and speculation during her life and after her death. She was not a symbol of Revolution; she was made a symbol of Revolution.
The night the women marched, Marie Antoinette chose to sleep alone. She had been warned by one of the courtiers that the crowd was coming for her, and had sensibly chosen to dispatch her family to the King’s secure apartments while she slept in the adjoining chambers. When the crowd broke into the castle, she and two ladies-in-waiting were almost captured in this chamber, but managed to enter the King’s apartment and lock the doors just in time.
In the morning the armed crowd gathered in the courtyard, calling for the Queen. She emerged with her two children in tow. The crowd demanded she send the children back inside, which she did. Then she stood in the balcony for ten minutes, head bowed, and let the crowd scream at her and point their muskets at her. Can you imagine the pounding of her heart? Can you imagine her regret? She had pleaded with the King for months to flee with her and their children, which he had refused to do. Now it was her life on the line, not his, and for what? There was little she, a woman and foreigner, could do.
For what could she do? She had already employed every advantage she had, which was limited to persuading a God-anointed King to do his duty, and she had failed. She had no formal power herself to create change, and yet she was held accountable for just that. She had married the King as a 14 year old girl, an arranged marriage between European royalty per the custom of the time, and she held no more authority at the age of 34 than she did at 14. Nonetheless, she (and no doubt the crowd) did persuade King Louis XVI to release all the bread at Versailles to Paris, and to return there himself with the royal family.
This is how women, both high and low in French society, changed the trajectory of the French Revolution and created a space for women to transform themselves into political agents, which is just what they did.
The Women’s Petition to the National Assembly
What immediately followed these events amounted to a Renaissance age for women. In the wake of their success, the working women of France began to organize in clubs and solons, and very shortly they demanded and received new rights. These rights included the right to marry without parental consent, the right to name the father of an illegitimate child and to sue for the seduction that created the child, and expanded rights for widows. Eventually they became so organized that they submitted The Women’s Petition to the National Assembly.
The Women’s Petition was a unique document at the time. While previous works had been published introducing the concept of women’s rights, these were all authored by males (Mary Wollstonecraft published in 1792). This document was the group effort of women which immediately invoked 6,000 years of male privilege as the argument for it. The document sought to address inequality in everything from title to tailor, from Pope to politician. Sadly, this petition was never taken up by the National Assembly, but it stands as a testament to what women could do even with the social chains that bound them.
This period of enlightenment for women came to an abrupt end when the Reign of Terror began in June of 1793, upon which women lost even the right to peaceably assemble. The Reign of Terror began, ironically enough, as a result of Charlotte Corday’s assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, a popular Jacobin leader in the French Revolution. Corday was a monarchist and an aristocrat herself who believed (probably correctly) the Jacobin’s were agitating for the King’s execution. She was executed within days of Marat’s murder. Before she died she sent a letter to her father apologizing for “having disposed of my existence without your permission.”
All of these women were brave in a tumultuous time. Whatever may be said about their persons, their sturdy hearts left a mark on time and offered women of subsequent generations a tradition of opposition to gender inequality. Driven by desperation, women of each strata of French society rose to the challenge and risked life and limb to make a way for themselves and their daughters. Many lost their lives in the fight.
On this, the last day of Women’s History Month, I challenge readers to examine the fruit of their labor, the Women’s Petition to the National Assembly, especially the 10 desired decrees. This document calls us across a gulf of more than 200 years and asks us to consider: How far have we women really come?