Adventures in Feministory: Madam CJ Walker

Given the current economic crisis (and the fact that Slumdog Millionaire cleaned up at last night's Oscars), it seemed high time we dedicated the Adventures in Feministory segment of the blog to a woman who was all about the Benjamins. We could all use a little financial inspiration these days, right?

So stop clipping those coupons, put off your dumpster diving until the weather gets a little warmer, and read on to learn more about Madam CJ Walker, the first African American woman to become a self-made millionaire. Let's hope that her entrepeneurial spirit and skill at crafting hair care products for black women (her specialty) will inspire some of us to follow in her feministory footsteps.

Walker was born Sarah Breedlove (might she be an ancestor of Beau Breedlove?) in Delta, Louisiana, in 1867, to former slaves. By 1906, she was on her third marriage, had a daughter, changed her name to the snappier Madam CJ Walker, and began marketing her own line of hair care products (does this sound like the plotline for a zippy new sitcom or what?). Apparently, Walker's own hair had begun to suffer due to a lack of conditioning, and the products available for black women in those days just weren't cutting it.
(A fun fact: Walker claims she was inspired to create her line of hair-growing products in a dream she had where a black man came to her and told her how to cure baldness. So start paying attention to those dreams, ladies! You never know what money-making schemes they might contain.)

By 1910 Walker had moved her business to Indianapolis, and by 1917 it was the largest African American-owned business in the country. Not content just to be a millionaire (the first self-made female millionaire in history, according to the Guiness Book of World Records) Walker also dedicated herself to helping others. She was an active donor and philanthropist, giving thousands of dollars (worth even more back then) to the NAACP anti-lynching fund and the Tuskegee Institute. She also prided herself in offering employment to thousands of black women who worked for her as cosmetics agents. An inspiration, indeed!

by Kelsey Wallace
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Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.

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3 Comments Have Been Posted


Have you guys thought about compiling all these profiles into a book (with longer profiles, of course), or a special Bitch issue? That would be interesting, I think, to have them all in one, easily-referenced...thingy.

I agree with Jennifer

I agree, putting all these profiles in a book would be a fabulous idea! A lot of women out there would gain from it & value it.

I'm from St. Louis, where

I'm from St. Louis, where the example of Madam Walker is sometimes taught to schoolchildren as an inspiring local hero. After reading this post I looked into it and realized she only lived here for a relatively short time--still an inspiration, though, and we're happy to claim her.

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