It has been said time and time again that hair is a woman’s glory. It acts as an extension of her beauty and reveals the status of her health. For decades, women around the world have been spending big bucks on their hair, seeking out the best tools and products to achieve perfect tresses. Let’s face it, this seems especially true in the black community.
Today’s multi-billion dollar black hair care industry can be attributed to black women’s sometimes extreme obsession with their quest for good hair. A multitude of products geared specifically towards black hair are available in beauty supply stores and salons nationwide. But this was not always the case. In fact, this industry came from very humble beginnings.
The black hair care industry began to really take shape in the early 1900’s, due in large part to very ambitious and driven black women (Dossett 116). One such woman was Madame C. J. Walker.
Born in a time when slavery had just ended and women were still being denied political rights, Madame C. J. Walker and other black American women were stuck in the same traditional work roles. But Walker was able to break free and achieve her own independence and success by breaking out into the beauty industry.
In doing so, not only did Walker become responsible for revolutionizing the business of black hair care, but she was able to break barriers and pave the way for the black businesswomen and entrepreneurs of today. And due in part to her efforts, the roles of women in society, politics, and business have changed vastly since the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.
The Early Years of Madame C. J. Walker
After exploring the humble beginnings and early years of Madame C. J. Walker’s life, it becomes evident that her upbringing played a role in inspiring the women of her time period to make changes in their lives.
Born on December 23, 1867 in Louisiana, Walker’s adolescence was filled with hardships. The future entrepreneur was the child of former slaves who had worked their way up to sharecropping (“Manufacturing”; “Walker”; “Women” 22). After being orphaned at a young age, Walker relied on her older siblings for support and shelter (Gates Jr. 165; “Madame” 38; “Walker”; “Women” 22). At the ripe age of fourteen, Walker married her first husband, wanting “to get a home” and become less of a burden on her siblings (“Women” 22). Despite this move towards security and stability, Walker would still experience some personal hardships.
But then, tragedy struck. Soon after Walker had her first child, the joy of motherhood and the beginnings of a new family was short-lived. It was at 20 years old that Walker was widowed and left to raise her daughter A’Lelia alone (Gates Jr. 165; “Madame” 38; “Walker”). Nevertheless, without a bread-winning husband, Walker now had to figure out a way to support her daughter on her own.
“Her early years reflected patterns all too common for black women of her generation” (“Walker”). Like other African-American women of the late 1800’s, Walker found herself doing the work that society deemed fit for a woman. Black women especially had a hard time finding work in fields other than agriculture and domestic services, the same roles they had occupied during times of slavery (Dossett 114). Still, Walker ultimately settled into working as a washerwoman, performing whatever work she had to in order to provide for her family.
Breaking Away from Tradition
Madame C. J. Walker was finally able to break away from these stereotypical black female roles when she decides to go into business for herself by creating a line of black hair care products. Even today it is still not 100% clear how she came up with the initial idea for her product and business; there is much debate over the subject.
Some sources say that Walker claims that the idea for what would become her “Wonderful Hair Grower” “came to her” in a dream (Gates Jr. 165; “Madame” 38; “Walker”). She had been suffering from a scalp condition called alopecia and wanted to restore her hair to its original health and glory (Dodson 57; Gates Jr. 165; “Madame” 38).
Yet others claim that the idea was stolen from one Annie Turnbo-Malone, a woman who had previously started her own hair care line with a similar product and had employed Walker before Walker decided to branch off on her own (Gates Jr. 165; “Manufacturing”; “Turnbo-Malone” 701). She essentially took an already developed idea and improved upon in, making it her own.
Regardless of whether the idea was original or borrowed, Walker saw a void in the black hair care market and ventured to fill it.
Much of Madame C. J. Walker’s success could be attributed to the fact that her products were “geared to the special health needs of blacks” (“Walker”). The fact that she was a black woman creating products specifically for black hair and selling those products to black people was a first in American society.
Just as there is today, there had always been a stigma associated with black hair. Often classified as nappy and unruly, black hair has had a bad rep for generations. Even the very people who have it seem to be ashamed of their natural tresses. Still, I never quite understood why people were so eager to alter one of the very things that made them unique.
Yet, in the wake of this issue, one of the major selling points of Walker’s hair care system was that she focused on creating healthy hair (Cole-Leonard 73; Dossett 114; “Madame” 38). While other manufacturing companies were focused on selling products such as straightening and pressing combs to alter the hair to fit a standard of beauty, Walker was more focused on the health of hair.
Still, even though Walker advocated healthy hair, some individuals thought that her selling of pressing combs as part of her Walker System went against this trend (Dodson 57; Gates Jr. 165). How could she promote having healthy hair that was true to black’s uniqueness and still sell the very thing that was fighting against this identity? Regardless, Walker saw that there was a desire for this kind of product in the industry and was keen to capitalize on this market.
Now the black consumer, rather than attempting to live up to “a standard of beauty that most” could not obtain, had options (Cole-Leonard 73). She could choose between products manufactured by a white-owned company and try to “emulate whiteness” or opt for the black-created products that promoted “race pride” and “race loyalty” (Dossett 185). In choosing a Walker product, consumers demonstrated their support of her push to build up and strengthen black identity and community (Cole-Leonard 73; Dossett 186).
Leaving a Legacy
Once Madame C. J. Walker became self-sufficient and successful with her hair care business, she continued to make her mark in American society.
A huge advocate for female financial independence, Walker opened a manufacturing company complete with a school in which to train her female employees. Her workers or “beauty culturalists” were well-trained in the “virtues of cleanliness and “good grooming” to perform in-home product demonstrations for potential customers (“Turnbo-Malone” 701; “Walker”). These skills gave the women the confidence and knowledge that they needed to go out and lay the foundations for a good career. Madame C. J. Walker basically provided careers for women who may not have otherwise experienced any personal stability or freedom.
Aside from boosting the power of women in the workforce, Madame C. J. Walker was very involved in philanthropy and giving back to the black community. As a social activist, Walker contributed to both the YMCA for blacks and the anti-lynching movement (Gates Jr. 165; “Madame” 38; “Women” 22).
Walker was even able to command the attention and respect of other prominent black leaders of the time period and solidify her standing as a major force in the movement of black advancement (Dossett 186; “Reading 3” 32).
For example, after being shut out of the National Negro Business League (NNBL) by Booker T. Washington, Walker refused to be denied the opportunity to share her story (Dossett 186; “Reading 3” 32).
Feeling that Booker T. Washington and the blacks of “so-called higher walks of life” looked down on her line of work, Walker knew that she had made a way for “many colored women to abandon the wash-tub for more pleasant and profitable occupation” (“Reading 3” 32). If it were not for this lesser line of work, many black women of the early 1900’s would not have had a career. The over 3,000 jobs that her manufacturing business had created would not have existed (“Madame” 38; “Walker”; “Women” 22).
Even if Washington could not see the importance and impact Madame C. J. Walker had on the black community, other leaders could. In fact, her home became somewhat of a gathering place for influential members of black society. Her home became a sort of hub for creative thinking and talent.
Upon her death on May 25, 1919, her mansion was passed down to her daughter A’Lelia who continued these meetings and became known as the “sweetheart of the Harlem Renaissance” (Dossett 90; “Madame” 38; “Manufacturing”; “Walker”). And although Walker was not directly involved in the movement, as it began to gain ground during the 1920’s, it is evident that her influence and work in the community left a legacy that encouraged such social movements in the black community.
Madame C. J. Walker’s Impact Today
Madame C. J. Walker’s relevance to American society today is clearly evident after reviewing her life’s work and contributions to the community. You can see how early childhood struggles and hardships in adulthood motivated the businesswoman to strive for success and independence in not only her work and personal life, but in the black community as a whole.
Walker was especially concerned with enabling black women to be financially independent in a time where women, especially black women, had no civil rights or freedoms. She made a way for them to make their mark in the world of business and entrepreneurship.
This becomes especially significant in our modern society in which so many black women are single parents raising their children on their own. Without Walker’s past work, black women today might still be dependent on men for stability and support.
Even more important was Walker’s work to shed black women of their traditional roles in domestic work. This paved the way for women of today to not be tied down to these same roles. Instead, they can aim higher and hold positions as CEO’s of major corporations and start their own thriving businesses. Without these early efforts, women such as Oprah Winfrey and Lisa Price may not have been able to reach the level of success and wealth in business that they have achieved today.
The impact of Madame C. J. Walker’s legacy can be seen through her accomplishments and philanthropy, which supported women in business and contributed to the movements in women’s suffrage and civil rights. Without her work, womankind would not be where it is today.
Cole-Leonard, Natasha. “Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women.” Iris.38 (1999): 73. GenderWatch. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.
Dodson, Angela. “History, Hair-Story, Her-Story.” Black Issues Book Review 3.2 (2001): 56-59. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.
Dossett, Kate. “I Try To Live Somewhat in Keeping with My Reputation as a Wealthy Woman: A’Lelia Walker and the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company.” Journal of Women’s History 21.2 (2009): 90,114,185-186. GenderWatch. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.
Gates Jr., Henry Louis. “Madam’s Crusade. (Cover Story).” Time 152.23 (1998): 165. Business Source Complete. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.
“Madame C. J. Walker – Woman with a Vision.” New York Post 11 Dec. 2006: 38. Gale Opposing Viewpoints In Context. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.
“Manufacturing.” Black Firsts. Canton: Visible Ink, 2003. n. pag. Credo Reference. 31 July 2006. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.
“Reading 3: The Philosophies of Madam Walker and J. C. Penney.” OAH Magazine of History 20.1 (2006): 32-33. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.
“Turnbo-Malone, Annie Minerva.” Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Ed. Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980. 701. Women and Social Movements. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.
“Walker, C. J. (Madame).” The Reader’s Companion to American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991. n. pag. Credo Reference. 31 July 2006. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.
“Women Leaders.” Celebrating Voices 2.2 (2000): 22. GenderWatch. Web. 15 Oct. 2012.
32c Madam C.J. Walker Single. 1998. United States Postal Service. Falls Avenue Vintage Fashion. Web. 09 Dec. 2012
Madam C. J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. 1925. Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington. Examiner. Web. 09 Dec. 2012.
Bigthink. “The First Self Made African-American Millionaire.” YouTube, 23 Apr. 2012. Web. 09 Dec. 2012.
WTIU. “Indiana Legends: Madam C. J. Walker: Two Dollars and a Dream Preview.” YouTube, 20 Oct. 2011. Web. 09 Dec. 2012.
WTIU. “Stanley Nelson Interviews Madam C. J. Walker’s Great Grand Daughter.” YouTube, 20 Oct. 2011. Web. 09 Dec. 2012.
For More Information:
- Madame C. J. Walker hair care products.
- Family Archive blog run by A’Leia Bundles, the great-great granddaughter and leading authority on Madame Walker.
- Lengthy video dedicated to Walker’s story. Includes interviews, commercials, and common misconceptions.
- Various audio and video sources.
- Video discussing Madame C. J. Walker in the U. S. National Archives