By: Elizabeth Larkin Bouché
As inauguration day approaches and women ready themselves for the Women’s March on Washington, I am reminded of Europe’s most remarkable uprising of women against tyranny—The Women’s March on Versailles in 1789.
It was a major, dramatic event on a par with the storming of the Bastille. A food riot in Paris, led seven thousand women, transformed into an armed march to take flour from the king’s stores 12 miles away in Versailles. Revolutionaries seized the opportunity to join the women 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 in history, signaling a shift in power from the nobility to the common people.
The Women’s March on Versailles is a reminder of the power of popular protest movements. Following the election of Trump, and spurred by growing unease with our own Versailles-like oligarchs, similar protests are now cropping up at grassroots level in the United States. The Paris women were driven by famine; they and their children were hungry. Women today are mobilized by threats to hard-won advances made since the Enlightenment. The ordinary women who have organized the March on Washington are unleashing what is perhaps a primal and formidable maternal fury once again.
The comparison between revolutionary France and current events is not so far-fetched. Civil unrest in Paris was fueled by paranoid plots in the press and fake news. It was also the result of basic needs becoming unaffordable, market deregulation, widespread distrust of government, huge national debt, and deeply divided political opinions. One key 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, while the third estate, or 97 percent of the population, were heavily taxed for foreign wars. The parallels did not escape the notice of “Time” magazine. Its person of the year cover featured Trump seated on a tawdry carved chair decorated with a fleur-de-lis, the symbol of the French monarchy. Indeed, Trump draws the comparison himself when he chooses to be interviewed while seated in a gilded throne in his French Rococo-style dwellings.
Considering all this, and with large numbers of women taking to the streets, it is interesting to look at what drove French women to insurrection at a powder keg moment in history.