by Katy Gehred
There seems to be a split between people who describe Madam C.J. Walker as America’s first self-made female millionaire or as the first self-made African American female millionaire. As somebody with a background in feminist theory, I’m tempted to chalk this up to identity politics, which so frequently asks women of color to choose between race and gender as their primary identity. Madam C.J. Walker never felt the need to separate her racial activism with her womanhood. She made her million dollars not in spite of but because of her identity, creating hair products for African American women and taking advantage of a completely untapped market in late 19th century US. She’s both an inspiring and problematic figure in American history and she’s worthy of discussion.
Madam CJ Walker was born with the name Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. Both of her parents were recently freed slaves, and they passed away when she was just 7 years old. She was extremely poor, picking cotton with her sister and her sister’s “cruel” husband to get by. She married Moses McWilliams when she was 14 years old as a way to escape that life, and she had her daughter Lelia (later changed to A’Lelia) when she was 18. She was a widow at 20, and began work as a washerwoman.
Around 1890 in St. Louis she began to look for a more profitable way to live her life than washing “white folks’ dirty clothes”. Her inspiration came from an unusual place, whilst looking for a cure for her hair loss due to alopecia she began to work for African American entrepreneur Annie Malone, selling Malone’s “Wonderful Hair Grower.” But after moving to Colorado and marrying Charles Joseph Walker, a promoter, she concocted her own hair product and began advertising it in the newspapers. She adopted the name “Madam CJ Walker” and began to tour with the “Walker Method” of hair growing, which was soon wildly successful.
From her hair product profits, Walker began to open factories and beauty schools. She trained teams of sales beauticians to travel around the country promoting Walker’s philosophy of “cleanliness and loveliness.” She pushed her way into the National Negro Business League convention in 1912 by writing letter after letter to Booker T. Washington and finally showing up uninvited. She interrupted Washington during a morning session to announce “I feel that I am in a business that is a credit to the womanhood of our race.”
The politics surrounding black hair spur on debate even today. While Walker’s beauty regimen involved hot combs for hair straightening she denied that her system was purely to straighten hair, rather, she argued, it was for growth. She told a reporter “Right here let me correct the erroneous impression held by some that I claim to straighten hair, I want the great masses of my people to take greater pride in their personal appearance and to give their hair proper attention.” However, as Walker’s legacy remains associated with hair straightening and the politics of respectability. Nandi Comer’s 2010 poem “Our Hair” includes a section entitled “What we learn from Madam CJ Walker” about young women using a heated comb, “the smoke sizzling out their greased curls/ until they could smooth and flatten the manes into ponytails.”
Walker used her money and influence to improve the lives of African Americans. She donated money to black universities, the “Colored Branch of the YMCA”, and historically black churches. She toured the country speaking out against lynchings, which were terrifyingly commonplace in the USA of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She and other prominent black entrepreneurs and activists actually traveled to Washington to meet Woodrow Wilson and present him with a petition to make lynching a federal crime. He sent his secretary to meet them.
Walker was a black woman who created a product that met the needs of black women of her time. Her company was large and successful, and she actively sought out black women to hire. She was a smart businesswoman, using strategies of competition and rewards to motivate her “Walker Agents” into creating more sales, and thus making profits and giving her the means to employ more black women. Madam C.J. Walker succeeded in what was most definitely a “white man’s world,” not by choosing any one aspect of her “identity” over any other, but by ingeniously embracing her experiences as a black woman in a way that translated to financial success.