Encyclopedia Womannica

Mavericks & Legends: Madam CJ Walker

Episode Summary

Madam CJ Walker (1867-1919) was a legendary entrepreneur. Hers is a real rags to riches story. Thanks to sales of her hair products, she may have been the first Black woman to be a millionaire in the U.S.

Episode Notes

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Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

All May, we’ve been talking about Mavericks and Legends, highlighting women who went against prescribed gender norms to make a name for themselves -- for better or for worse. Some of these women did incredible things for society and should be celebrated, others had a big impact that was not quite so rosy. The collection of women we’ve featured this month is complex and nuanced, much like all women are. 

 Our final woman of the month was a legendary entrepreneur. She may have been the first Black woman to be a millionaire in the U.S. Meet Madam C.J. Walker.

Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867. She grew up on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, along with her five siblings. Her parents were former slaves, who had turned to sharecropping after the Civil War. 

By the time Sarah was 7, both of her parents passed away from unknown causes. Sarah moved in with her sister, Louvenia, and worked with her in the cotton fields. At age 14, Sarah married Moses McWilliams, partially to escape her abusive brother-in-law. After a few years of marriage, the couple had a daughter named Leila. 

Moses soon passed away, leaving Sarah to raise their child alone.

In 1889, Sarah sought to escape poverty by moving to St. Louis, Missouri to join her four brothers, who all worked as barbers. She started out making a living by cooking and doing laundry. In St. Louis, Sarah was exposed to a strong, successful community of Black men and women through the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

It was extremely difficult to make a living as a Black woman in the 1890s. Sarah had another short-lived marriage that ended in divorce. She faced financial struggles and physical difficulties from her years of hard labor.

In 1904, Sarah’s life took a turn for the better. She started working as a sales agent for Annie Turnbo Malone’s hair product, “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower.” After a year, she moved to Denver, Colorado and married Charles Joseph Walker, who worked in advertising. Sarah renamed herself “Madam C.J. Walker,” and started her own line of hair products specifically for African American women. She called it “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.”

Madam C.J. started her line with only $1.25 of initial investment. Her husband helped with advertising and setting up a mail-in order system, before the couple divorced in 1910. Madam C.J. then moved to Indianapolis and built a factory for Walker Manufacturing Company.

The burgeoning African American hair care industry faced criticism from some community leaders, including activist Booker T. Washington. He feared that hair-straighteners and skin-bleaching creams would normalize harmful, white-centric standards of beauty. Perhaps as a marketing tactic, Madam C.J. specifically advertised that the ingredients of her product were African in origin.

It’s also clear that Madam C.J. was piggybacking off of Annie Turnbo Malone’s hair product line. Some claim that Turnbo was actually the first black woman millionaire, not Madam C.J. No matter who reached that milestone first, Madam C.J. is notable for her incredible advertising skills, and her ability to sell her hair product as the ultimate lifestyle.

Madam C.J. used her success to support her community. She employed 40,000 Black people throughout the United States, Central America, and the Caribbean. She opened training programs for her network of Black women sales agents, who also earned healthy commission rates. In 1917, Madam C.J. also founded the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association.

Madam C.J.’s wealth grew, along with her philanthropy and activism. She donated to the YMCA, covered tuition for several African American students at Tuskegee Institute, donated $5,000 to the NAACP, and spoke out against lynching.

Before Madam C.J. passed away, her product sales topped $500,000, and her net worth passed $1 million.

Madam C.J. Walker passed away from kidney failure on May 25, 1919. Right before she died, she revised her will to ensure two-thirds of future net profits would go to charity.

Like many of the women this month, Madam C.J. Walker has a complicated legacy. However, she is worth remembering for her determination, talent, and philanthropy. 

This is the final episode of our “Mavericks and Legends” month. On Monday, we’ll kick off June with a full month of our favorite episodes from the past year. 

For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our newsletter, Womannica Weekly.  

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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator, and special thanks to all the Womanniacs out there. To join our brand new membership program go to glow.fm/womannica. It really means a lot to us. You’ll be supporting the work that goes into Encyclopedia Womannica and you’ll get special access to biweekly live events and you’ll be able to help shape future content. 

Talk to you Monday!