The Generalist

The March of the Fearsome Fish Ladies

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The Women’s March on Versailles, also known as The October March, The October Days, or simply The March on Versailles, was one of the earliest and most significant events of the French Revolution. The march began among women in the marketplaces of Paris who, on the morning of 5 October 1789, were near rioting over the high price and scarcity of bread. Their demonstrations quickly became intertwined with the activities of revolutionaries who were seeking liberal political reforms and a constitutional monarchy for France. The market women and their various allies grew into a mob of thousands and, encouraged by revolutionary agitators, they ransacked the city armory for weapons and marched to the Palace of Versailles. The crowd besieged the palace and in a dramatic and violent confrontation they successfully pressed their demands upon King Louis XVI. The next day, the crowd compelled the king, his family, and most of the French Assembly to return with them to Paris.

These events effectively ended the independent authority of the king. The march symbolized a new balance of power that displaced the ancient privileged orders of the French nobility and favored the nation’s common people, collectively termed the Third Estate. Bringing together people representing disparate sources of the Revolution in their largest numbers yet, the march on Versailles proved to be a defining moment of that Revolution.

The women’s march was a signal event of the French Revolution, its impact on a par with the fall of the Bastille. For its inheritors, the march would stand as an inspirational example, emblematic of the power of popular movements. The occupation of the deputies’ benches in the Assembly created a template for the future, forecasting the mob rule that would frequently influence successive Parisian governments. But it was the crudely decisive invasion of the palace itself that was most momentous; the attack removed forever the aura of invincibility that once cloaked the monarchy. It marked the end of the king’s resistance to the tide of reform, and he made no further open attempts to push back the Revolution. As one historian states, it was “one of those defeats of royalty from which it never recovered”.

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