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October 1789: The Women's March on Versailles

 

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The Women's March on Versailles in October 1789 is credited with forcing the royal court and family to move from the traditional seat of government in Versailles to Paris, a major and early turning point in the French Revolution.

The women's march began in the markets of Paris amid anger at the price of and scarcity of bread. The fear of famine became an ever-present dread for the poor. Rumors swirled that foods, especially grain, were purposely withheld from the poor for the benefit of the privileged. The final trigger came from a royal banquet held on October 1 at which the officers at Versailles welcomed the officers of new troops, a customary practice when a unit changed its garrison. The royal family also attended the affair. The lavish banquet was reported in newspapers as nothing short of a gluttonous orgy. Worst of all, the papers dwelt scornfully on the reputed desecration of the tricolor cockade; national ornament of France, obtained by circularly pleating a blue, white and red ribbon. Drunken officers were said to have stamped upon this symbol of the nation and professed their allegiance solely to the white cockade of the House of Bourbon. This embellished tale of the royal banquet became the source of intense public outrage.

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On a wet October morning, a young woman struck a marching drum at the Paris East market, prompting other women to join. From their starting point, the angry women forced a nearby church to toll its bells. More women from other nearby marketplaces joined in, many bearing kitchen blades and other makeshift weapons. As more women arrived, the crowd outside the city hall reached between 6,000 and 7,0000 and perhaps as high as 10,000. Some men also joined in.

When the crowd entered the Palaces of Versailles, some fighting ensued between the crowd and the royal troops. A young woman was killed. However, peace quickly prevailed and the King agreed to talk to the women. The King made concessions to the women, including releasing food stocks from the royal stores and to move the official royal residence from Versailles to Paris.

Historians credit the Women’s March of October 1789 to a shift in the balance of power between the French Monarch and the common people. Previously the Monarch had absolute power. No individual dared to oppose the King. However the women demonstrated that acting collectively, they could set up an effective opposition to absolute power.

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