Women in History Wednesdays: Marie Antoinette

by Rocco Graziano

225 years ago today, a pale, thin woman was loaded into an open-air cart at the Conciergerie, one of Paris’ most secure prisons. Her hair had been shorn, her hands tied behind her back, and she was held by a rope leash.  She wore a cap and a plain, white gown; a modest outfit, but also a message. White was the traditional mourning color of the widowed queens of France, and Marie Antoinette had more to mourn than most. Her husband, the gentle but utterly useless Louis XVI, had been executed 8 months earlier, her children had been taken from her, and all the world she had been raised to know had been destroyed.  As she was led from the cart up to the scaffold, she accidentally stepped on the foot of her executioner, saying “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur. Je ne l’ai pas fait exprès,” “Pardon me sir, I did not do it on purpose.” Her jailors and the people of Paris made every attempt to humiliate her, yet even as she was lead to her death, she retained her dignity, strength, and kindness. It is easy for one to wonder how a woman who was decent enough to apologize for stepping on the foot of her executioner seconds before he cut off her head ended up in such a situation to begin with, and one can find many answers to that, but I would argue that all reasons stem back to one source: the demonization of women in politics.

Marie Antoinette is perhaps best known for one single phrase: “Let them eat cake!” No quote sums up royal ignorance of the suffering of the peasantry more than this response to being told that the peasants have no bread. But (sorry to burst everyone’s bubble), Marie Antoinette never said these words, and most likely no one ever did. They are first recorded in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiography The Confessions, where he attributed it to a “great foreign princess of France.” The fact of the matter is, Marie was only six years old when Rousseau’s book was written, and Rousseau is known to have invented most of the biography’s tales. Like many other women throughout history, Marie Antoinette had numerous false accusations leveled against her and was blamed for the problems of all of France. She is said to have been “Madame Deficit,” bankrupting France with extravagant dresses, hairstyles, and parties, while the people starved.

Marie was an easy scapegoat to blame for France’s problems. A Catholic society, royal France was filled with stories of immoral women, Jezebels who, like Eve, bring about the downfall of man. Marie was a foreign princess from Austria, France’s longtime enemy. Courtiers at Versailles called her “L’Autrichienne,” meaning “the Austrian woman” and “the Austrian bitch,” note how even the language used against her was gendered to be specifically feminine.  She was married to Louis for 11 years before siring an heir, a fact blamed on her even though the true cause was Louis’ erectile dysfunction. She had no interest in politics, no interest in being queen, and no power to change the situation of the people of France. She had been sold as a broodmare at the age of 14 to the Kingdom of France, taught to look regal and bear children, and not interfere in the realm of ‘men’s politicking’. While one may understand why a starving Frenchman in 1789 would not be partial to an extravagant, monarchical regime, Marie Antoinette’s reputation today as a “shop-a-holic” who bankrupted the country is an example of the demonization of women for things beyond their control.

History, which has until recently been almost exclusively the domain of men, consistently seeks to use women as a scapegoat, and demonize women, and this continues until today. We need to look no further than our own most recent Supreme Court nomination. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford described in harrowing detail her experiences with Brett Kavanaugh, and yet she is the one who has been demonized and harassed. People have sent her death threats, accusing her of lying, of trying to make a political move through her accusations. Just like how Marie Antoinette was not the cause of France’s issues, Dr. Ford is not the source of Kavanaugh’s problems. His behavior is the problem, yet her behavior is what is scrutinized. Donald Trump has been colliding with Russia since before the election, yet Hillary’s emails and  her behavior were scrutinized and investigated. On this 225th anniversary of the execution of Marie Antoinette, I have a message for the men of the world: women are not the source of your problems. It is time to stop using women as scapegoats for the bad behavior of men, to be demonized and used and thrown away into the garbage pile of history.