Aux armes, citoyennes!
Never mind the storming of the Bastille, which only succeeded in liberating seven prisoners. The French Revolution really got underway when a few thousand Parisian women marched on Versailles, on the October 5, 1789. This is how the story goes: the harvest had failed that year, and there was a major grain shortage. People were starving; the situation was untenable. And so that day in October, somewhere just east of the Bastille, a young woman began to beat a drum. Fishwives, market-stall holders, laundrywomen, working women of all stripes but also women from nearly every level of society gathered at her side. One climbed the bell tower of a local church to sound the call to arms: it was time to march on the government.
First they headed to the Place de la Grève, where they broke into the Hôtel de Ville and got up to all kinds of revolutionary mayhem. Buoyed by a new confidence, they decided – 7,000 of them by this point – to walk the 14 kilometres to see the king in Versailles, to the west of the city. It was raining, and chilly; they carried muskets, swords, and pikes, broomsticks and pitchforks, and wheeled cannon for which they had no powder, hoping the mere sight of it would be intimidation enough.
It worked. By the time the women went home the next day, they had the King and Queen and their family in tow, decked out in tricolour cockades: the women’s march succeeded in bringing the royal family to the Tuileries Palace at the centre of Paris, where the populace could keep a closer eye on them. The King agreed to release provisions from the palace’s storehouse, and to sign the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The women sang as they walked home, a revolutionary-era “I Am Woman Hear Me Roar”:
To Versailles, like braggarts,
We dragged our cannon.
Although we were only women,
We wanted to show a courage beyond reproach.
We made men of spirit see that just like them, we weren’t afraid;
Guns and musketoons across our shoulders…
Every time women march, we defy those who have tried to make us feel unsafe or unwanted in public
Marches are sometimes reproached for having minimal immediate impact, except at the grassroots level. Certainly there is no expectation that the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017 is going to achieve anything like its 18th-century counterpart, which, in addition to its political gains, also resulted in the deaths of at least two members of the royal bodyguards, their heads carried back to Paris on pikes.
But you don’t have to wheel in cannon to make a difference: the visibility of the protest, and what it means for those who march, is as important as any immediate result. Just look at the centrality we give the storming of the Bastille, which we remember more because it was stormed than for the liberation of seven prisoners. Protesting is galvanising, both for those taking part, and for those looking on.
For women in public, visibility has always been a problem: we are either too visible, and attract unwanted (or wanted) attention, or we are completely overlooked. But when we march, we are saying: you can’t miss us, and we don’t want you to, either. Every time we march, we defy those who have tried to make us feel unsafe or unwanted in public. We break the old taboo that a woman’s place is in the home: we walk right out of the house and onto the streets.
On the 21st, I will march not in Washington, but in Paris, where I live. We have our own reasons for marching here. We march to protest the most offensive, least qualified president in United States history being ushered into the White House, effectively enshrining misogyny as the law of the land. But here there’s a sense of needing to march before it’s too late. Marine Le Pen beats her drum in the name of the people, as her campaign slogan goes. But we will take to the bell towers of Paris if we must, to drown out the Front National’s call of hatred and exclusion.
The French ideological right has long manipulated allegorical and mythological images of femininity like Marianne or Joan of Arc to control women’s behaviour, but on the 21st we will counter them with flesh and blood women. When we march, we place our very bodies at the heart of our civil rights: what we do with them, including how and where we choose to march them, is our choice. We are not allegories, we are not statistics, we are not Russian hackers posing as Nebraskan housewives. We are citizens, and we stand up to be counted.