Female Badasses in History: Nathalie Lemel (1827-1921)

by spaceinvaderjoe

Nathalie Lemel was a French socialist activist, feminist, anarchist, and fighter for the Paris commune. Together with other like-minded women she founded the Union of Women during the Paris commune, which additionally to its role as an organizational extension of the First Socialist International played a vital role in furthering feminist and socialist causes during the Paris commune.

Nathalie Lemel was born in Brest in 1827. She was in school until age 12 when she became a bookbinder. In 1861 the business she and her at the time husband ran in Brest went bankrupt and Nathalie moved to Paris to work as a bookbinder and book retailer. During her time in Paris she became involved in socialist activism. Her first action was when the newly founded First Socialist International supported the French bookbinder’s strike of 1864. Lemel joined the First International and when a second strike was called a year later she was elected a union delegate and a member of the strike committee, which was rare for women at the time. Additionally to her socialist activism, she also used her position to fight for feminist causes, mainly equal salary for men and women and women’s right to vote should democracy be re-established. France at the time was ruled by Napoleon III in the style of an absolutist monarchy but in 1868 slow attempts at re-democratization were made. One of these measures was the repeal of the prohibition on public meetings. Additionally to the discussion of the social question, many meetings were held concerning the “question of women” mainly by socialists like Lemel. This lead to the general politicization of women in France, which should become a major factor in the Paris commune a few years later.

In 1870 war between France and Germany broke out. Paris was under siege by German forces and as unrest grew, riots broke out. Socialist and other left-wing revolutionaries seized this opportunity to form a city government that would govern the city according to socialist principles. The so-called Paris Commune was the first attempt in history to create a socialist order in any form of governance. It existed for two months, from March 18 to May 28 1871. Nathalie Lemel was closely involved in the Commune. Not only did she fight against German as well as French government troops but also was closely involved in Commune politics. Together with other like-minded women she formed the Union of Women in an attempt to further feminist politics in the Paris Commune. The Union had about 1800 members and was the biggest women’s organization in Paris. Its members organized oublic talks on the rights of women, were involved in the fight against enemy troops not only by supporting men in combat but by fighting themselves. Lemel and the co-founders such as Elisabeth Dimtrieff were also big critics of Commune politics, especially since there was no woman in the Commune’s government and its rulers did not introduce women’s suffrage arguing that this was not the time given the precarious military situation.
One of the biggest achievements of Lemel and the Union was that they organized women’s labor. They created places to work and founded soup kitchens and other places of supply for all of the Paris’ population, opposed to the Commune or not. Lemel saw socialism as a movement for everybody.

The Paris Commune was ended in a very bloody fight in May of 1871. Unlike many of her fellow fighters Lemel did survive the Commune’s end and was banished from France’s mainland to New Caledonia from where she returned in 1880 to continue her fight for socialism and women’s rights through publishing several magazines until her death in 1921.
Lemel does not only stand out as a practical fighter in the field of activism and real military fighting (she stood on the barricades of Paris, rifle in hand) but one of her and her fellow founders of the Union of Women lasting contributions is that the socialist movement was forced to discuss feminist politics and women’s rights issues. Through their active participation in all areas of life during the time of the Commune Lemel and the members of her organization basically proofed that the cause of socialism could not go on without including women. Although it was a very slow process, later prominent female socialist activist such as Adelheid Popp or Rosa Luxemburg could find a political home also concerning women’s rights with the Socialist International in part due to activists like Nathalie Lemel.