First Millionaire: Madam C. J. Walker

by Katy Gehred

There seems to be a split between people who describe Madam C.J. Walker as America’s Madam C.J. Walkerfirst 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.

Madam CJ WalkerFrom 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.

Chicago Women’s History in Plain Sight: Clara Driscoll (1861-1944)

Clara Driscoll (far left in white blouse) and other Tiffany glass cutters, circa 1904.

by Emma Staffaroni

This article is part of a three-story series exploring Chicago women’s history.

Back in 2007 the New-York Historical Society featured an exhibit called “A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls.” Louis Comfort Tiffany, the 19th century decorative arts genius who pioneered the use of stained glass and mosaic, was not a woman, but his glass workers were, and recent research out of the Queens Historical Society reveals that these women had a crucial role to play beyond manufacturing. Clara Driscoll of the exhibition’s title was the Director of the Women’s Glass Cutting Department at Tiffany Studios in New York. As the Director, she designed and crafted some of the most famous lamps attributed to Tiffany himself, including the Daffodil lamp, pictured below right.

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A selection of Tiffany lamps designed by Clara Driscoll are on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Driscoll worked for Tiffany for twenty years, during which time she designed countless lamps, windows, and mosaics. She left her mark on Chicago history when she assisted with the Tiffany Dome in Marshall Field’s department store on State Street in Chicago in 1907. Using Tiffany’s 1894-patented “favrile iridescent glass,” she and her co-workers took the work they did on smaller windows and lamps to the next level with this massive project that would endure as a gem of Chicago architecture and Art Nouveau.

As women’s historians know, women’s history is more often than not “hidden in plain sight,” frequently over-shadowed by the name of a man or a male-controlled enterprise. Yet what is spectacular about Driscoll’s contributions to glass work is that her works are not hidden, but rather quite plainly and splendidly visible for Chicagoans to behold–both at the old Marshall Field’s, now Macy’s, and at the Chicago Cultural Center, once meant to be the public library. Now protected historic landmarks, Driscoll’s masterpieces will not be marginalized by the hegemonic male bias in curation practices. Rather than being stuffed away in a dusty Art Institute storage space, Driscoll’s architectural works–though doomed to be attributed to her boss, Tiffany–will not be forgotten.

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The dome of Marshall Field’s Department Store in Chicago

Chicago History: Elizabeth Catlett in They Seek a City

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Elizabeth Catlett’s Sharecropper (1952) on display as part of They Seek a City

by Emilie Egger

“Art is only important to the extent that it aids in the liberation of our people.”–Elizabeth Catlett

The Art Institute of Chicago’s They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration, 1910–1950 exhibit, currently on display, includes art created during and inspired by the era of the Great Migration in Chicago in the first half of the twentieth century. The exhibit prominently displays the lithographies of Mexican artist Elizabeth Catlett, known for her artistic work for social justice among issues of race, class, and sexism.

The works focus on African-American migration from the United-States South, the waves of immigration out of several European countries, as well as the thousands of immigrants who traveled from Mexico to the northern United States. The exhibit highlights the common experiences of these immigrants in urban Chicago. Reasons behind the migrations are varied; for some, religious persecution prompted their move, while for others, it was the hope of better working and living conditions in the industrial North.  Chicago became a community for all these immigrants, coming from different backgrounds with the common goal of overcoming the hardships of immigrant life.

The art of Elizabeth Catlett encompasses several of these themes. Catlett is best known for her painting, sculpture, and lithography that focused on the political issues of her time. Born in Washington D.C. Catlett was a graduate of Howard University and the University of Iowa’s fine-arts program, where she studied under renowned American Gothic painter Grant Wood. Her first connections to Chicago came when her sculpture, Mother and Child won first prize at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940. She later began a ceramics residency at the Art Institute of Chicago, where much of her work remains.

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Elizabeth Catlett’s Mother and Child (1939) won the American Negro Exposition first prize for sculpture in Chicago in 1940.

Themes of migration, color, and class permeate Catlett’s work. Catlett was the granddaughter of American slaves and was known to portray famous black activists, such as Harriet Tubman, Ralph Ellison, and Malcolm X in her work. However, the majority of her oeuvre focuses on the lives of more-ordinary working people, especially women. It is these works that currently make up a large part of the current Great Migration exhibit, highlighting both her artistic prowess and her political consciousness.

Some of Catlett’s most-famous works include Sharecropper (1952), which features an anonymous black woman worker from the 1950s American South and her 1946 series of prints titled “The Negro Woman.” She did not shy away from the most-controversial issues of race, including lynchings and police beatings of blacks. Her award-winning Mother and Child became the inspiration for several other sculptures revolving around themes of motherhood.

Catlett spent much of her later life in Mexico, eventually becoming a professor of sculpture at Mexico City’s University of Mexico’s School of Fine Art, before retiring in Cuernavaca. Soon after relocating, Catlett began work with the People’s Graphic Arts workshop in Mexico that called themselves a political/social art group.Together, they created pamphlets, posters, and textbook illustrations that highlighted various working-class causes in Mexico.

Catlett soon became a well-known activist for Mexican working women. She left the United States for good and became a Mexican citizen after being labeled an ‘undesirable’ US citizen following her arrest during a railroad-strike in Mexico City in 1949. She would remain in Mexico until her death.

Until the end of her life, Catlett remained concerned with the social aspects of her work, once saying, “I have always wanted my art to service my people — to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.” In many ways, her art is an extension of her activist identity. Catlett was a regular striker, picketer, who remained politically active well into her 90s.

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One of Catlett’s works on display as part of the Chicago Art Institute’s ‘They Seek a City’ exhibit

They Seek a City will remain on display at the Art Institute of Chicago until June 2, 2013.

You can see more of Catlett’s work here.