Marie Antoinette is a trailblazer in women’s history. The last queen of France lived a short and polemic life being the most popular (or should I say unpopular) figure in the public sphere, which caused her to literally lose her head for being the most hated woman in France.
Was it because she was born Austrian?
Because she was a bit of a shopaholic?
Because she was a woman in power?
Or just because she was born in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Archduchess of Austria, Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, born on November 2nd 1755, was the youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis I. The fact that Austria and France lived at war didn’t really help Marie’s chances of being respected by her future subjects, but I digress. In hopes of solidifying an alliance between Austria and France, the 15 year old Maria was married off to Louis XVI, grandson of King Louis XV, and heir to the throne. The future queen’s first death occurred in 1770, when she crossed the border to France. She left her family, her culture, her country and even her beloved dog (a cute pug named Mops). Maria Antonia was gone as were all her belongings. She was told to strip down from her Austrian clothes and adopt a new luxurious French style. She would now become Marie Antoinette, Dauphine of France.
Since the beginning of time, the main purpose of women in royalty was to produce an heir. To Marie’s great misfortune, Louis was incapable of consummating their marriage for 7 years. It was believed that he had an erectile dysfunction that was later then resolved by circumcision, but the fact that he was a shy, inexperienced boy might have contributed to his difficulties in the marital bed. And guess who took the blame for that? Of course, Marie Antoinette. Gossip started to travel through the halls of Versailles that the beautiful and enchanting Dauphine couldn’t please her husband and achieve her one and only goal in life. This led to a huge disappointment from her very demanding and strict mother, who would send her devastating letters that basically said “Where did I go wrong with you?”.
Now, let’s stop here for a second. Did anyone even question that Louis could have some fault in this? Never. If sexism is still a huge issue today, can you imagine what it was like in 1774? Obviously, it would be the woman’s fault if she couldn’t get pregnant and God forbid she ever suggested that her husband wasn’t doing his part.
Marie Antoinette was raised solely to become queen. She didn’t receive a normal education and was only trained to produce an heir, look regal and expensive while attending royal parties. So why was Marie Antoinette so criticized for doing exactly what her role asked of her? The people nicknamed her “Madame Deficit”, and accused her of bankrupting France because of her lavish lifestyle. She was well known for hairstyles so extravagant that sometimes involved ships that made her a few inches taller than her already short and stubby husband. Maybe she wouldn’t party so much if Louis didn’t neglect her by spending most of his time hunting. But what really made Marie Antoinette the talk of the town was having girl friends. Rumors about her sexuality and of orgies with friends was the media’s favorite scandal. The pamphlets distributed around Paris included explicit pornographic drawings, purposely meant to degrade the queen’s image.
It is true that indulging in such an opulent lifestyle while the French population was starving, might not have been the best strategy to win over her people. But she didn’t know better. She wasn’t taught politics or government matters and there was nothing she could have done to save France. The famous quote: “Let them eat cake” is unjustly attributed to the queen as a way to blame her for the suffering of the peasants when they had no bread to eat. Those words were never actually said by Marie Antoinette, and were in fact written by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau when she was only 6 years old and still living in Austria. This just goes to show that people loathed her so much that they would find any excuse to add another item to their “Reasons To Hate The Queen” list. It was fake news.
When Marie Antoinette finally became pregnant, after her brother talked some sense to Louis XVI and helped him with his impediments, her whole demeanor changed. Motherhood encouraged her to leave the parties and shopping addiction behind to focus on her family and pursue a more conservative lifestyle. She already knew that people would talk about her regardless, so her idea was to show how dedicated she was as a mother in order to reconstruct her image. Posing with her children for family portraits was one way she tried to alter people’s opinion of her. She became what would be considered an “Instagram mom” in our times. But the French already had their minds made up about the queen and it seemed as though it was too late to change that, as if she ever had a chance.
During the French Revolution, tragedy was ensued all around her. She was still grieving the death of one of her children a few years prior, as she tried to prevent the Revolution from destroying the rest of her family. She was tried for crimes she didn’t commit, and the charges against her were mostly directed towards her character rather than her role in the monarchy. She was even accused of sexually assaulting her 7 year old son, to which she refused to respond by simply uttering: “If I make no reply, it is because I cannot. I appeal to all mothers in this audience.”
Marie Antoinette spent months imprisoned in precarious conditions and she wore black everyday in anticipation of her death, which took months to actually happen. “I was a queen, and you took away my crown; a wife, and you killed my husband; a mother, and you deprived me of my children. My blood alone remains: take it, but do not make me suffer long.”
Finally, on October 16th 1793, Marie was forced to dress in a simple white gown and cap, which was the traditional mourning color of French widows. She indeed had much to mourn: her husband had been beheaded 8 months prior, her kids had been taken away from her, her entire world had been shattered to pieces. She was taken to the guillotine in an open cart with her hands tied behind her back, as the people of France shouted and spat at her while she tried to hold on to whatever strength was left. Marie Antoinette’s last words were uttered as she accidentally stepped on her executioner’s foot: “Pardon me sir, I did not do it on purpose.” Note that even in her last moments, after she had been tortured and humiliated, Marie Antoinette was able to maintain the dignity, decency and courage of a true queen. The people cheered as the blade came down and her body was thrown in an unmarked grave. At least the suffering was over.
Marie Antoinette might have been frivolous and materialistic but she was not the cause of France’s problems. She was the perfect scapegoat. A foreigner born to the enemy, a woman in a position of power and too much visibility with not enough voice. She was hated for simply being who she was: a queen. Because the French no longer wanted a queen. The days of monarchy were over. She was a victim of the circumstances of her time. Marie Antoinette has truly left her mark in women’s history.