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Women's hunger led the French Revolution but the patriarchy prevailed
During the French Revolution, amidst starvation and rage, women used their newly found freedom from food to test the strength of patriarchal shackles and solidify the fate of a misunderstood Marie Antoinette.
By Tommie Brown
France, 1789. The October night is black, the sky cracked open with rain. A mob of enraged and starving women march to the beat of a drum being played in the crowd as they trudge through the mud chanting, “Le Pain! Le Pain!” (“Bread! Bread!”). With pitchforks and pikes, the women knock on each door they pass, recruiting all Parisians to take up arms against their hunger and join them as they descend upon Versailles.
The entire country is swelling with famine and fury. The people are starving, but the monarchy hides within the walls of their palace, apathetic to the suffering taking place at the foot of their gates. In the absence of food, women, freed from the duty of feeding their families, are awakening to the injustice of having been imprisoned in the kitchen. They are about to get their first taste of revolution.
As the women reach the doors of Versailles, they spill the blood of two guards. They put their heads on pikes — a warning to the rest —and force their way into the King and Queen’s quarters, demanding to see the face of the one woman who they perceive to be wallowing in the lap of luxury, perched atop her gilded throne instead of working to end their starvation: Marie Antoinette. She emerges on a dark balcony, overlooking the mob of thousands calling for her death. Trapped in her own secret plight of hunger, Marie Antoinette bows her head to the baying throng. Empowered by her shame, the angry women below spare Marie Antoinette’s life, for the first and last time.
The women who marched on the palace of the vilified Queen were famished, but they wanted more than bread. Starvation, for them, had awakened a new hunger: one for equality. But as they shook their pitchforks up at their silhouetted monarch, the vanguards of this nascent feminist movement didn’t realize that their villainization of Marie Antoinette would ultimately play a role in their own movement’s downfall.
Starvation: A woman’s burden
The French Revolution, which began in May of 1789 and lasted until November 1799, was sparked by the deteriorating living conditions of poor commoners in France. A wicked combination of a baby boom, multiple bad harvests, the monarchy’s lavish spending, and generous financial support for the American revolution meant that country’s economy was in dire straights, and things were only growing worse by the day. For the lower classes, everyday life was overshadowed by mass food shortages and grocery price gouging. In the lead-up to the Revolution, heavy government taxes raised the price of bread by 88%. At the same time, wages for women’s labour dropped drastically, making it almost impossible for women to afford bread, a staple food for the impoverished French commoners. Rising bread prices left families starving — in many cases, to death.
As a domestic duty, the responsibility of bringing food onto the table fell squarely on the shoulders of French women. With the food supply threatened by France’s spiralling economy, it was women who were often blamed for not being able to produce sustenance. After all, they were the only ones who shopped and cooked for their families. Many of them worked in poorly paid and laborious jobs — as laundresses, lace workers, and farmers — just to be able to afford food. In every sense, French women of the time were relied upon to provide meals for their families and suffered the consequences when they could not.
In Food and Femininity, Kate Cairns and Josée Johnston write, “The gendered expectation to purchase, prepare, and enjoy food within context, or failing at food, is… perceived as a failure of femininity, or womanhood.” In pre-Revolutionary France — the peak of the philosophical Enlightenment movement, headed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a staunch anti-feminist — it was widely accepted that a woman’s place was in the domestic or private sphere. Since French women were given little to no form of education or independence outside of domestic duties, this narrative was met with limited pushback. They were, ironically, the breadwinners, but their power remained invisible outside of the home.
But food shortages flipped the script. French women turned their anguish over their brutal living conditions and starving children into rage, staging hunger strikes and protests, even once beheading a butcher accused of price gouging. In his account of protests about sugar prices, Charles Alexandre described women as “the most excited of the mob” and “real furies”. They had gone from being the invisible “softer sex” to revolutionaries determined to cause a scene. The growing fervour culminated in women leading the 1789 march to Versaille, considered by many historians to be the formal beginning of the French Revolution.
A movement grows, fixated on power
After the march on Versaille, women got organized. Olympe de Gouges, a leader of the feminist revolutionary movement, wrote, “The revolution will only take effect when all women become fully aware of their deplorable condition and of the rights they have lost in society.”
It had started with bread, but the changes women were advocating for soon had little to do with food and everything to do with education, marriage, and politics. Between 1789 and 1793, 56 women’s clubs, the Société des republicaines revolutionnaires, emerged in Paris, dedicated to women’s equality. Women revolutionaries — accused by men of being “hysterical,” “ignorant”, and doing nothing but “disturbing otherwise calm sessions” — started showing up to popular men’s political clubs and voicing their grievances and opinions on behalf of all women. While men were reaching “enlightenment”, starvation brought women to their own great awakening.
Crucially, the Revolutionary women wanted to take down the key figure they saw standing between themselves and a better life — Marie Antoinette, France’s infamously decadent queen. Painted by commoners as the human caricature of gluttony and ignorance, Marie Antoinette was said to have spent more money than anyone in the history of France. Rumours echoed through the populace that while the people were starving to death, Marie Antoinette was throwing lavish dinner parties solely for the purpose of inviting members of the public over for a ritual known as “au grand couvert” — to sit and watch her and her husband, King Louis XVI, eat. Revolutionary anger fixated on the manufactured mental image of the Queen swaddled in twelve-layered dresses with diamonds stolen from Comtesse de la Motte around her neck.
When the band of women marched to Versailles, it was Marie Antoinette’s quarters they trampled into first. And in 1791 when Olympe de Gouges wrote the infamous text “The Declaration of the Rights of Woman” — drafted in response to the 1789 “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” written by the French National Assembly as a preamble to the Constitution, which failed to include any mention of women (or enslaved citizens) as citizens who would gain equal rights — it was to Marie Antoinette that de Gouges dedicated the text. In hopes of awakening her desire to fight alongside the poor and common women against all patriarchal oppression, de Gouges personally delivered a copy of her manifesto to the Queen, inscribed to “the most detested of women”.
Marie Antoinette and the politics of protest
But what de Gouges and the revolutionary women did not know was that Marie Antoinette was engaged in a food fight of her own. While the stories of royals and elites gorging themselves on never-ending courses of fine food were true, contrary to popular belief, Marie Antoinette was the sole royal who didn’t partake. Not only was Marie Antoinette not responsible for the dinners, but she had no interest in eating at all.
An outcast in her own palace, Marie Antoinette had been ostracized by her Court for seemingly myriad reasons — for being of Austrian descent, for offering up political advice to the King when her place was to stay silent, for not bearing the country a son within a timely manner. Lonely, powerless, and coattailed by maids who were ordered to keep a steady eye on the queen, Marie Antoinette lost her appetite. Henriette-Lucy, Marie Antoinette’s lady-in-waiting, wrote in her memoirs that while “the King ate with a hearty appetite, the Queen did not remove her gloves, nor did she unfold her napkin”. The lady-in-waiting goes on to describe how Marie Antoinette would often not touch her food. Her Chambermaid, Madame Campan, also wrote in her memoirs that if the Queen ever ate, it was in private, and she would only intake poultry or water. Her only true meal of the day — often also taken in the privacy of her bedroom — was breakfast, which following Viennese tradition, consisted of coffee or hot chocolate, and a pastry that we now know as a croissant. Exhausted by the constant attention, she even dismissed the maids ordered to serve her meals.
Marie Antoinette’s eating habits, or lack thereof, may have been an act of rebellion on their own against the assembly who stripped her of her independence. And the royal French Court took it as such. They mocked her desire for daily Viennese breakfast. They made no secret of the fact that her decision to dismiss her maids scandalized them. Above all, they set out to paint the Queen as a haughty, cold, and selfish woman. This unbecoming portrait, packaged and resold for centuries, is likely to have not been further from the truth. Marie Antoinette may, in fact, have been an empathetic and generous — if lost and naïve — figure. A chambermaid’s journal tells of Marie Antoinette sending her monthly income to help the victims of a fire in Paris before proceeding to cry over the tragedy for seven days straight. But to the Court, she was simply not what a French queen should be. Isolated and resented, Marie Antoinette continued to starve herself, fully aware that this only fueled the monarchy’s willingness to let her take the fall for their over-indulgences with the French public. In the end, she paid for it with her head.
What came next was far from the feminist awakening that the women Revolutionaries had worked for. Two weeks after the fall of the monarchy, the all-male Revolutionary government banned women’s political clubs. They decreed that women’s sexuality was a scourge on society and guillotined Olympe de Gouges, the first to claim that women had the right to the scaffold, as a warning to other politically active women. It would be centuries before women’s rights improved: The civil code introduced by Napoleon Boneparte in 1804 declared women inferior beings and denied them all civil and political rights, and after the fall of Napoleon, the newly reinstated monarchy established even more traditionalist policies, including the prohibition of divorce.
The Revolutionary women inadvertently sharpened the tools that men then turned against them as soon as Marie Antoinette’s head had rolled. In accusing Marie Antoinette of promiscuous behaviour that betrayed her country and husband, and fixating on her negligence as a mother, they had, through their own internalized misogyny, reaffirmed the exact roles they had spent the last ten years trying to redefine. French womanhood was now idealized in opposition to Marie Antoinette: a good French woman was to be obedient, non-sexual, motherly, and placid. Women were swiftly removed from the public sphere and the image of Marie Antoinette as a coquettish villain would keep them out for a long time to come.
The tragic irony is that by seeing Marie Antoinette as their main aggressor, the Revolutionary feminists starved their own movement — all while Marie Antoinette, too, failed to recognize their fight as her own. The common women were hungry, but so too was their Queen, who was surrounded by food but said to have been spitting mouthfuls into her napkin, refusing to internalize the demands of the King and his Court. One side was being starved by force, the other by will. Both were using hunger to claim power over their lives. But as they starved for the sake of freedom, they unknowingly deprived themselves of communion.
Tommie Christopher Brown is a SoCal writer whose style spreads from poetic to academic but finds home in marrying the two. She has a BA in English and recently worked for VICE, Boshemia Magazine, and Mitu. Follow her on Instagram @Tommiethegirl.
Listen to Tommie’s reflections on this piece in our WAR BTS here.
Cairns, K., and Johnston, J. (2015) Food and Feminity. Bloomsbury Academic Publishing.
Grey Levy, D. (1979). Women in Revolutionary Paris, 1789–1795. University of Illinois Press.