Nathalie Lemel

Week Six of Resonating Women of The Paris Commune

Listen here to For Nathalie                                                                              improvisation on viola and shruti box

Nathalie Lemel 1826- 1921

Nathalie Duval was born in 1826 in Brest where her parents owned a café. She married a book gilder Jerôme Lemel and, jointly, they ran a bookstore in Quimper. In time, her husband’s excessive drinking became a problem and eventually they went bankrupt. Nathalie took their three children and moved to Paris where she trained as a bookbinder. She became involved in organising workers and was particularly active in the bookbinders’ strikes of 1864 and 1865. In 1866 she became a member of the First International where she met Eugène Varlin and, together, they set up the food cooperative La Marmite.Through the restaurant, Varlin and Lemel provided cheap food and meals to the poor and they helped many people through the siege of Paris in the Prussian war. As Louise Michel later wrote,

‘….the revolutionary Marmite, where during the entire siege, Madame Lemel saved I do not know how many people from starving to death, was a veritable tour de force of devotion and intelligence’ (Michel quoted in Eichner 84)

Lemel continued her work at La Marmite into the period of the Commune but she also became a key activist in various organisations. For example, she frequently spoke at the Club de l’école de Médicine but was also involved with several other radical political clubs. Her most significant contribution to the work of the Commune was her involvement with the Union des Femmes. Indeed, Eichner describes her as the second most important figure in the Union des Femmes (after Elisabeth Dimitrieff) due to her experience as a worker in union struggles and strikes. Besides being the Union des Femmes representative for the 6th arondissement, Nathalie was one of four workers on the National Executive Committee responsible for calling meetings and coordinating the demands of women workers. At one meeting on 12th May, speaking alongside fellow communards, André Leo and Lodoyska Kawecka, Nathalie declared,

‘We have come to the supreme moment, when we must die for our Nation. No more weakness. No more uncertainty. All women to arms. All women to duty. Versailles must be wiped out’ (reported by Fontoulieu, in Thomas, 101)

At the of end ‘Bloody Week’, on 21st May the Union of Femmes met for the final time in the 4th arondissement. At the end of the meeting, Nathalie led the citoyennes out into the streets under the red flag to defend les Batignolles. A hundred and twenty women held the barricade at Place Blanche for several hours. Many were killed on the spot, including the dressmaker Blanche Lefebvre who had been a key Union des Femmesorganiser.  As the situation deteriorated, Nathalie doubled back to Place Pigalle where she planted the red flag and cared for the wounded.

After the defeat of the Commune, on 21st June Nathalie was arrested. She tried to kill herself and was subsequently hospitalised for a year. Acting throughout with intense revolutionary commitment, she finally went before the Council of War on 10th September 1872. Assuming responsibility for all the acts for which she was accused, including running the Union des Femmes, she stated proudly

‘I drew up a manifesto with four other women. I drafted an appeal to working women. I cooperated in building barricades. I spoke in the clubs…’

Sentenced to deportation in August 1873, Nathalie and 19 other women, including Louise Michel, were locked in iron cages on an old frigate and sailed for New Caledonia in the South Pacific.  On arrival, Nathalie demanded that they be treated the same as the male prisoners. They were sent to Ducos peninsula where they lived in straw huts and suffered punishments with chains and whips. Many died in the harsh conditions and, although weak and ill, Nathalie survived and, in the amnesty of 1880, she returned to Paris where was employed by the left-wing newspaper L’Intransigeant. A militant feminist to the end, she continued fighting for women’s rights. She died in 1921 at the grand age of 95 years.

Some sources

Roland Michon, Graines sous la neige, Nathalie Lemel, Communarde et visionnaire, 2017

Robert Graham’s anarchism, Remembering Nathalie Lemel,  2018

Paul Fontoulieu, Les églises de Paris sous la Commune, Paris, 1873

J Cox, ‘Genderquake: socialist women and the commune’, International Socialist Quarterly Review of Socialist Theory, Issue 69, posted 5 January 2021


C. Eichner, Surmounting the Barricades, Women in the Paris Commune, 2004

G. Gullickson, Unruly Women of Paris, 1996

E. Thomas, The Women Incendiaries, 1966

Above: Street mural by Guy Denning and Shoot in Brest, installed 2007

My letterpress prints are made on paper salvaged from a discarded series of 19thc technical manuals sourced in Tarnac, a small rural community in Corrèze, one of the ‘reddest cantons in France as a whole’ (Ad Knotter, ‘Little Moscows in Western Europe: the Ecology of Small-place Communism’, International Review of Social History, 2011)