october 1789


Palace of Versailles

Begun by Louis XIII in 1623, the château began as a hunting lodge in brick and stone. It was expanded into a royal palace by Louis XIV. Life at Versailles was intrinsically determined by position, favor and above all one’s birth. The Chateau was a sprawling cluster of lodgings for which courtiers vied and manipulated. The court of Versailles was the center of political power in France from 1682, when Louis XIV moved from Paris, until the royal family was forced to return to the capital in October 1789 after the beginning of the French Revolution. Versailles is therefore famous not only as a building, but as a symbol of the system of absolute monarchy of the Ancien Régime. [x]

Women & Feminism in the French Revolution (D. Godineau)

Women participated in the revolutionary events, but, not being a distinct whole, some were revolutionaries and others counter-revolutionaries. An important women’s movement, a component of the popular movement, stood out in certain moments of the Revolution, and it was for example by their manifestations that the journées of October 1789 and the insurrections of spring of Year III (1795) began. Women, who, by their role as nourishing mothers, paid special attention to the alimentary problems, were particularly numerous in all food riots. But they were not motivated by this question alone and their interventions in the revolutionary process were not limited to this aspect. The militants took part in events whose motives were political (17 July 1791, 20 June, 10 August 1792, conflict between Gironde & Montagne and struggle against federalism in 1793, 9 Thermidor Year II, etc.). One even notices feminine motions in sans-culotterie, against a background of the crisis of supplies but relating to political subjects (spring and summer 1793, Ventôse Year II, winter of Year III). The citoyennes did not legally have the right to vote and were not accepted as members in most revolutionary organisations. In order to overcome these limits that were imposed on their engagement, the most active women organized in Women’s Clubs (Citoyennes Républicaines Révolutionnaires in Paris and around thirty others in the provinces): they were forbidden on 30 October 1793. Women furthermore rushed into the public tribunes of the societies, clubs or assemblies (Convention, municipalities), where they educated themselves politically while working there (hence the nickname of tricoteuses). The place which was theirs in the Sovereign and their incomplete citizenship were at the heart of certain aspects of their interventions in the Revolution as of a certain feminist expression.

From the beginnings of the Revolution onwards, women expected an improvement of their condition in social, familial and economical outlooks. Some, like Olympe de Gouges, Etta Palm d'Aelders or Théroigne de Méricourt, appeared rather radical, others were obviously more moderate. Two texts dominate a production of writings that were often very different: On the admission of women to the rights of citizenship by Concordet (July 1790) and The declaration of the rights of woman and the female citizen by Olympe de Gouges (September 1791). Both of them thought that, as beings of reason, women belong to the human community and are therefore born with the same natural rights as men ; to forbid them to « contribute to the law » is a violation of the « principle of the equality of rights » and an « act of tyranny », wrote Concordet. These two essential texts present a theoretical feminism ; but the reflections on women’s rights were not particular to the debates of the Revolution and, based on the philosophy of natural rights, were revived with new vigour in 1793 while feminine sans-culotterie asserted itself with force within the popular movement. Women, thinking and social beings, have the right to take part in political life, assured the militants who added: « the declaration of rights is common in the one and in the other sex » ; and « since the Constitution is based on the rights of man », some demanded its « whole exercise » (the right to vote). Some rejected the image of passive and unimportant women which they linked  to the condition of a people that is submitted to despotism and opposed to it the one of « free women », members of a free people, who participate by their action in the conquest of the liberty of mankind. The masculine oppression was compared to the former royal despotism: in a Republic, the « marital despotism », « just as despotic towards women as was the one of aristocracy towards the peoples », has to disappear because « everywhere where women will be enslaved, men will be bent under despotism », these women wrote. The feminism of Olympe de Gouges, Concordet, Etta Palm d'Aelders, Théroigne de Méricourt or of the militants of 1793 was considered in a general perception of society: to restore their natural rights to women was regarded as one of the conditions that are necessary in order to arrive at a truly free society. Alongside these texts, certain approaches of women have, if one examines them in the light of the concepts acting under the Revolution, a feminist character: the ceaseless demands since the beginning of the Revolution of the militants of the right to bear arms (an inherent attribute of popular sovereignty, one of the foundations of citizenship), the solemn approval of the Constitution of 1793 by groups of women who, by this gesture, asserted themselves as members of the sovereign and reacquired a right (sanction of laws by voting) which they did not enjoy. When it comes to questions of mentalités, the majority of the revolutionaries were hostile to this feminism ; the report of Amar (30 October 1793) which prohibited the Women’s clubs and the exercise of political rights by women largely put an end to the feminist reflections. If the revolutionaries legally refused the political rights to them, they nonetheless took a certain number of measures which improved their condition: civil acknowledgement, successional equality, divorce (by mutual consent, if it took place). But, after the Revolution, the Napoleonic Civil Code would place women under the domination of the chef de famille for many years.

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Views of Versailles from the 1920s by photographer Eugène Atget

A mob stormed the palace of Versailles during the night of October 5, 1789. No French head of state ever resumed permanent residence there, though everyone from Bonaparte to De Gaulle and Sarkozy have spent extended time living in pavilions on the grounds.

Atget became obsessed with Versailles, which he saw as the embodiment of French civilization—a blend of elegance, order, and baroque excess. He worked there from 1901 until his death over 25 years later.

Some of the accusations made against Marie Antoinette in the Act of Accusation for her trial, drawn up by Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville:

  • That she drained the French treasury in order to ‘satisfy inordinate pleasures and to pay the agents of her criminal intrigues,’ and that she sent millions to her brothers in Austria.
  • That she organized the ‘orgy of October 1st, 1789,’ and encouraged the soldiers to trample the national cockade and engage in ‘counter-revolutionary excesses.’
  • That she, along with Louis XVI, ordered both counter-revolutionary and anti-monarchy pamphlets to be distributed throughout France in order to instigate foreign powers to go to war with France.
  • That she organized a famine in October 1789 in order to weaken the revolution.
  • That she opened and locked the door of the Tuileries through which she, the king and the royal family passed through during the flight to Montmedy.
  • That she conspired with the marquis de Lafayette to forbid anyone without permission to leave or enter the palace, in order to prevent people from knowing about 'midnight orgies’ against liberty.
    That she, along with her secret midnight councils, planned and ordered the Champs de Mars massacre.
  • That it was her advice (and that of her Austrian council) which persuaded Louis XVI to use his veto, particularly on the laws regarding priests and emigres.
  • That she plotted 'with her perfidious agents’ the violence on August 10th, 1792, plied the Swiss Guards with drink to keep them 'in a state of drunkenness,’ and personally bit gun cartridges to 'excite those in her interest’ the night of August 9th.
  • That she 'prostituted herself’ with her son, Louis Charles.

I hope that if there is no lack of bread, many things will be righted. I am in touch with the people; militiamen, market women; they all hold out their hand to me, and I hold out mine to them … The people, this morning, asked us to stay. I told them on behalf of the king, who was at my side, that it depended on them whether we stayed or not; that we asked for nothing better; that all hatred must cease; that we would flee in horror from any bloodshed whatsoever. Those closest to me swore that it was all over. I told the market women to go tell others what we had just said to each other.

–Marie Antoinette to Ambassador Mercy, 7 October 1789 [translation: Mary Hudson, The Indomitable Marie Antoinette]

Details of Marie Antoinette’s children in a family portrait painted by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun in 1787. The queen’s youngest child, Sophie, died before the portrait was finished and her cradle was repainted empty.

Marie Thérèse Charlotte (19 December 1778 - 19 October 1851)
Louis Joseph Xavier François (22 October 1781 - 4 June 1789)
Louis Charles (27 March 1785 - 8 June 1795)
Sophie Hélène Béatrice (9 July 1786 - 19 June 1787)


The terrified Queen threw herself out of bed; they put a petticoat upon her without tying it, and the two ladies conducted her towards the oile-de-boeuf. A door, which led from the Queen’s dressing-room to that apartment, had never before been fastened but on her side. What a dreadful moment! It was found to be secured on the other side. They knocked repeatedly with all their strength; a servant of one of the King’s valets de chambre came and opened it; the Queen entered the King’s chamber, but he was not there.

–the memoirs of Madame Campan, on the events of October 6th, 1789