Madam C.J. Walker, the First Self-Made Female Millionaire in the U.S.

Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock

Like many fortunes, Madam C.J. Walker’s started with a dream. As she later explained to a newspaper reporter, Walker was earning barely a dollar a day as a washerwoman when she had a dream about a man who told her how to create a hair-growing tonic. When she awoke, Walker sent away for the ingredients, investing $1.25 in what she eventually dubbed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The venture would propel her to become one of America’s first black female entrepreneurs—and reportedly the first self-made female millionaire in the nation.

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 to freed slaves on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, the woman who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker was orphaned by age 7 and married by 14. The couple had one child, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia), but six years into the marriage, Walker’s husband died, by some accounts in a race riot. Walker then worked washing clothes while dreaming of building a better life for her daughter. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds,” she later told The New York Times, “I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”

By 1903, Walker had relocated to St. Louis and started to work for an African-American hair care company before then moving to Denver, where she had heard that the dry air exacerbated hair and scalp issues. At the time, such complaints were widespread among African-Americans, in part due to a lack of black-focused products and access to indoor plumbing. By the early 1900s, Walker herself had lost much of her hair.

Then came her dream. “[I] put it on my scalp,” she later said of the tonic, “and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”

In 1905, Walker began selling her solution door-to-door and at church events. She took the product on tour, traveling throughout the South and Northeast and recruiting other door-to-door saleswomen. A year later, she married Charles Joseph Walker and established the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and in 1908 founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, a beauty parlor and school for training Madam Walker brand ambassadors. Two years later, she relocated her business headquarters to Indianapolis—then a commercial hub—where she and a mostly female cadre of top executives produced Wonderful Hair Grower on an industrial scale.

A’Lelia, however, was not content with the Midwestern milieu. In 1913 she convinced her mother to open an office in New York and decamped to Manhattan, acquiring a stately Harlem townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state. The home, later nicknamed the Dark Tower after poet Countee Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower,” included a Lelia College outpost on the first floor and living and entertaining spaces on the top three. A’Lelia frequently threw lavish parties there, attended by Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

Walker followed A’Lelia north, where she purchased the adjacent townhouse. Soon, she was a cultural mover and shaker in her own right, joining the NAACP’s New York chapter and helping to orchestrate the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, when roughly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue as a demonstration against the East St. Louis race riots earlier that year, in which dozens of African-Americans had been killed.

“She became politically active and very much an advocate of women’s economic independence,” Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist and biographer, tells Mental Floss. “She used her national platform to advocate for civil rights.”

The same year as the Silent Protest, Walker and a handful of Harlem leaders traveled to the White House to petition for anti-lynching legislation, and donated $5000 to the NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Fund—the largest single gift ever recorded by the fund. In 1916, she established the Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association, a program that encouraged Walker brand ambassadors to engage in charity work and hygiene education outreach.

As her empire grew, Walker continued to monumentalize her success. In 1916, she bought a four-acre parcel of land in Irvington, New York, and enlisted Tandy to design her a home to rival the nearby estates of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Her determination only swelled in the face of realtors who tried to charge her twice the price of the land to discourage her, and incredulous neighbors who reportedly mistook the hair care baroness for a maid when she arrived at the property in her Ford Model T.

Villa Lewaro
Villa Lewaro
Library of Congress, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Like her Manhattan residence, the mansion became a popular hang-out for the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also used the home to give back. “She made a blanket invitation to the returning African American soldiers [from World War I] to please come visit the home,” Bundles says. It also served as a kind of early safe space for A’Lelia and her largely LGBTQ social network.

But almost as soon as the home was complete, Madam Walker’s health began to crumble. Though she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney problems, Walker continued to work and roll out new products. “Like most entrepreneurs she couldn’t figure out how to slow down,” Bundles says. “She needed to rest, but she couldn’t really make herself.”

In the spring of 1919, while on a business trip to St. Louis to unveil five new formulas, Walker fell gravely ill and was shuttled back to Irvington in a private car. That May, she died of kidney failure at the age of 51.

Yet her influence would live on. At the time of her death, an estimated 40,000 black women had been trained as Walker saleswomen. In 1927 the Madame Walker Theatre Center opened in Indianapolis, housing offices, a manufacturing center, and a theatre. Her name on the building reflected her unprecedented imprint on black entrepreneurship.

Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
FA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Madam C.J. Walker brand also survived. In fact, it’s recently been revitalized, after black-owned hair care company Sundial acquired it in 2016, debuting two dozen new formulas exclusively at Sephora last spring. “It’s very glam,” says Bundles, who serves as the line’s historical consultant. In a historic deal in November 2017, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever acquired Sundial’s $240 million portfolio, and as part of the agreement designated $50 million to empower businesses led by women of color.

Walker’s house, known as Villa Lewaro, has had a rockier afterlife, having been owned by the NAACP and then used as an assisted living center for decades. In 1993, stock broker and U.S. ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena purchased the property, committing to a years-long restoration process. They’ve recently secured a protective easement for the site, which prevents future buyers from altering the appearance of the home—a means of preserving the house’s history, and that of Madam Walker.

Walker’s legacy is also likely to gain a new round of admirers with the recently announced Octavia Spencer-fronted television show about her life, which is based on a biography by Bundles and is allegedly courting distribution by Netflix.

With her brand in full swing and her life story about to be immortalized on the small screen, it seems that even in death, Madam Walker’s dream lives on.

Lady Death: Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the Greatest Female Sniper of All Time

Soviet sniper Lyudmila Pavlyuchenko
Soviet sniper Lyudmila Pavlyuchenko
Ozerksy/AFP/Getty Images

For Lyudmila Pavlichenko, killing Nazis wasn't complicated. “The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey,” she once said of her job.

But Pavlichenko wasn’t just any soldier: She was the most successful female sniper in history, and one of the most successful snipers, period. As a member of the Soviet Army during World War II, she killed 309 Nazis, earning the sobriquet “Lady Death.” She also became a public figure who toured North America and Britain, befriended Eleanor Roosevelt, and spoke candidly about gender equality—especially when she was fed up with American reporters.

Pavlichenko was born in 1916 in Bila Tserkva, a village near Kiev, Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. As a girl, she was boisterous and competitive. In her early teens, she moved with her parents—a government employee and teacher—to Kiev. After hearing her neighbor’s son brag about his shooting skills, she joined a local shooting club. “I set out to show that a girl could do as well [as him],” she later explained. "So I practiced a lot."

Besides being an amateur sharpshooter, the teenaged Pavlichenko worked in an arms factory. At around 16 years old, she married a doctor and gave birth to a son, Rostislav, but the marriage was short-lived. She then went on to study history at Kiev University starting in 1937, while also enrolling in a sniper school on the side.

When German forces invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Pavlichenko felt called to action. She left school, hoping to volunteer for the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division.

The only problem? She was a woman. At the time, women in the Soviet military were largely relegated to support roles—not combat ones [PDF].

Army leaders initially wanted Pavlichenko to be a nurse. After some pleading with a registrar, she was able to join as a sniper because of her training. However, a lack of guns meant that she at first helped dig trenches instead. She wrote in her memoirs, “It was very frustrating to have to observe the course of battle with just a single grenade in one’s hand." Eventually, a colleague wounded by a shell splinter passed his rifle over to Pavlichenko when he was too injured to use it. Weeks later, she shot two Romanian soldiers a quarter-mile away, which served as a “baptism of fire,” she later wrote, and led to her being accepted by her comrades as a full-fledged sniper.

Soviet sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko in 1942
Lyudmila Pavlichenko in 1942
Ozerksy/AFP/Getty Images

Pavlichenko became one of over 2000 female Soviet sharpshooters who eventually fought in World War II (although female soldiers were still just 2 percent of the Red Army's total number). Pavlichenko killed hundreds of enemy combatants in Odessa, Moldavia, and Sevastopol. “We mowed down the Hitlerites like ripe grain,” she later said. Eventually promoted to sergeant and lieutenant, she spent months in battle killing scouts, officers, and at least 36 enemy snipers from Germany and other Axis countries.

Pavlichenko was so determined that even shell shock and multiple wounds from enemy fire didn’t deter her. Neither did bribes: After German soldiers learned of her shooting prowess, they tried to turn her against her country by offering chocolate and the promise of an officer rank in the German army. When she didn’t fall for it, Germans threatened to tear her into 309 pieces, her number of confirmed kills. The offer reportedly delighted her, since it meant her tally was widely known—yet her resolve didn't waver.

But after shrapnel hit Pavlichenko in the face in the summer of 1942, Red Army leaders withdrew her from combat and assigned her to train novice snipers. She was also given another role: wartime propagandist.

In late 1942, Pavlichenko traveled to the United States to galvanize support for sending more American troops to Europe. One of her first stops was the White House, which she became the first Soviet citizen to visit. She met with President Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, and the sniper and the first lady hit it off: Eleanor Roosevelt invited Pavlichenko on a tour of the country to talk about her experiences in combat.

Speaking through a translator to crowds that sometimes swelled to thousands, Pavlichenko discussed her childhood and triumphs as a sniper. “I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now,” she reportedly told one group in Chicago. “Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?”

The American press, however, had trouble taking Pavlichenko seriously. They described her as a "Girl Sniper," and focused on her physical appearance, disparaging her bulky green army uniform and minimal makeup. Instead of asking about her skills with a rifle, reporters questioned her about nail polish, hair styles, and whether female Soviet soldiers could wear makeup in battle. “There is no rule against it,” she replied. “But who has time to think of her shiny nose when a battle is going on?”

Pavlichenko soon tired of the questions. As she explained to one interviewer:

"I am amazed at the kind of questions put to me by the women press correspondents in Washington. Don't they know there is a war? They asked me silly questions such as do I use powder and rouge and nail polish and do I curl my hair? One reporter even criticized the length of the skirt of my uniform, saying that in America women wear shorter skirts and besides my uniform made me look fat. This made me angry. I wear my uniform with honor. It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn."

Comparing gender equality in the U.S. and Soviet Union, she also told crowds: “Now [in the U.S.] I am looked upon a little as a curiosity, a subject for newspaper headlines, for anecdotes. In the Soviet Union I am looked upon as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country.”

Pavlichenko eventually returned to the Soviet Union to continue training other snipers, after other publicity stops in Canada and Great Britain. Despite a relatively privileged position as a heroic figure there, she struggled with the lasting effects of her injuries and personal demons: alcoholism, what today we might call post-traumatic stress disorder, and the memories of a romantic partner who had died on the frontlines, in her arms, in early 1942.

When the war ended, Pavlichenko earned her history degree from Kiev University and worked as a historian for the Soviet Navy. In 1957, she reunited with Eleanor Roosevelt when the former first lady visited Moscow and stopped by Pavlichenko’s apartment. While the pair were at first reserved in the presence of a Soviet minder, Pavlichenko soon made an excuse to pull Roosevelt into another room. She reportedly threw her arms around the former first lady while the pair reminisced about their experiences 15 years earlier.

Pavlichenko died in Moscow in 1974, at age 58. The Soviet Union honored her with multiple medals and two postage stamps. A joint Ukrainian-Russian feature film, Battle for Sevastopol, was made about her in 2015, and her memoirs, Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin's Sniper, was published in English for the first time earlier this year. Pavlichenko also lives on in Woody Guthrie's 1942 song, “Miss Pavlichenko.” It includes the lyrics:

Miss Pavlichenko's well-known to fame
Russia's your country, fighting is your game
The world will always love you for all time to come,
300 Nazis fell by your gun
.

Mary Frith, 17th-Century London's Smoking, Thieving, Foul-Mouthed "Roaring Girl"

One of early modern Britain's most memorable underworld characters, Mary Frith flouted convention at every turn. Far from being the weak, timid woman who stayed at home taking care of children as Elizabethan ideals demanded, she took to the streets and stage, making a spectacle of herself that earned both official opprobrium and not a little public admiration.

Mary was making a name for herself while she was barely out of her teens. Born circa 1584 near St. Paul's Cathedral in London as the only child of a shoemaker and a housewife, she acquired a reputation as a tomrig (tomboy) or hoyden (boisterous girl) in her neighborhood. The Newgate Calendar—a series of 18th- and 19th-century criminal biographies named for Newgate prison in London—would later relate:

"She was above all breeding and instruction. She was a very tomrig or hoyden, and delighted only in boys' play and pastime, not minding or companying with the girls. Many a bang and blow this hoyting procured her, but she was not so to be tamed, or taken off from her rude inclinations. She could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching; a sampler was as grievous to her as a winding sheet [burial shroud]; and on her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels."

By age 16, Mary had already kicked off her career as a thief. She was arrested on August 26, 1600, suspected of having nicked someone's purse at Clerkenwell in central London. Two other girls were arrested for the crime as well, suggesting the three were working as a gang. Though Mary confessed at the subsequent trial, she was found not guilty, and it wasn't long before she was busted again for theft: In March of 1602, she was prosecuted for having taken "a purse with XXVs [25 shillings] of Richard Ingles."

Mary's father's brother was a minister and, noticing his niece's penchant for trouble, reportedly arranged a spot for her on board a ship headed for the New World. But Mary refused to make the trip: It's said that she jumped overboard while the ship was still in the harbor and swam back to shore. After that, she resolved to never go near her uncle again, and began hanging out in the seedier areas of London. She made a decent living there as a pickpocket, and over the course of her career, reportedly had her hand burned at least four times—a then-common punishment for theft.

Soon, Mary's occupation led her to acquire a nickname: She was known on the streets as Moll Cutpurse, for the purse strings she slashed. Moll was a double entendre: Not only was it a nickname for Mary, it also was a term for a disreputable young woman, e.g., a gangster's moll.

It was around this time that Mary started wearing men's clothing, a practice she continued for the rest of her life. Although doing so was unusual, Mary wasn't the only woman of her day who wore men's garb; it was something of a fad among young, lower-class women who frequented London's theaters and brothels in the 1600s. These ladies, colloquially called Roaring Girls—a play on roaring boys, males who would holler at and bully passers-by—were also known to crop their hair and carry swords, as Mary did.

But Mary's choice of clothing carried consequences—King James was incensed by the cross-dressing fad—and on Christmas Day of 1611, she was arrested and sent to Bridewell Prison. She was tried for "wearing indecent and manly apparel." After her sentence was served, she was made to wear a white sheet at the open-air pulpit of St. Paul's Cross during the Sunday sermon, which was meant to humiliate her. Mary wasn't the least bit ashamed, though, as recorded in her claimed autobiography (although the extent to which she wrote these words herself is debated by historians):

"They might as soon have shamed a Black Dog as Me, with any kind of such punishment; for saving the reverence due to those who enjoined it, for a half-penny I would have Traveled to all the Market Towns in England with it, and been as proud of it as that Citizen who rode down to his Friends in his Livery-Gown and Hood."

By then Mary had become a figure of local notoriety. In fact, two plays had already been written with her as the protagonist: John Day's The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside in 1610 and The Roaring Girl or Moll Cutpurse by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker the following year (a theatrical hit in which she made a cameo, possibly becoming the first English woman to perform in a public theater). Of the public penance at St. Paul's in 1612, the writer John Chamberlain penned to Dudley Carlton: "She wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but it is since doubted she was maudlin drunk, being discovered to have tippled of three-quarts of sack [white fortified wine].”

So generally unashamed was Mary that—according to legend—when her friend the showman William Banks dared her to ride about three miles from Charing Cross to Shoreditch dressed as a man on his famous dancing horse, Marocco, she accepted the bet of 20 pounds—but not before she got herself a trumpet and a banner, just to make sure no one missed her. Mary later said that as she rode, she pretended to be "Squiresse to Dulcinea of Tobosso," and that the journey was a lark until she reached Bishopsgate, with a mile left to go, whereupon:

" … passing under the Gate a plaguey Orange Wench knew me, and no sooner let me pass her, but she cried out! Mal Cutpurse on Horseback, which set the people that were passing by, and the Folks in their Shops a hooting and hollowing as if they had been mad; winding their cries to this deep note, 'Come down thou shame of Women or we will pull thee down.'

"I knew not well what to doe, but remembering a Friend I had, that kept a Victualling House a little further, I spurred my Horse on and recovered the place, but was hastily followed by the rabble, who never ceased cursing of me, the more soberer of them laughing and merrily chatting of the Adventure …

"So came late into Shoreditch, where I paced the same way back again to the winning of my Wager, and my great Content, to see my self thus out of danger, which I would never tempt again in that nature."

A drawing of Mary Frith from the title-page of The Roaring Girl
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Part of Mary's fame also came from the fact that she smoked a pipe, which was considered exclusively a man's pursuit in the 1600s. It became her signature, and today she's thought of as England's first female smoker. Hanging around tobacco shops seems to have inspired another of her salacious-for-the-era hobbies: playing the lute in public. In 1611, she even debuted on the lute at the Fortune Theater playing bawdy songs.

Around the age of 30, Mary seems to have made a move toward settling down. She married Lewknor Markham (possibly a son of Gervase Markham, a noted author of poetry and cookbooks) in 1614. But historians think it was probably a ruse, set up to give her a means of defending herself in court when she was defamed as a spinster. Although it was often said that women who dressed in men's clothing were "sexually riotous," according to later biographies Mary herself purportedly had no interest in sex, be it with men or women.

After spending years in and out of jail for petty theft, Mary also began working as a fence—a buyer and seller of stolen goods—which was a much less dangerous job than being a pickpocket. She set up a pawn shop of sorts in her house, where she’d store her purchases, then sell them back to their original owners at a profit. She also supposedly acted as a pimp, finding young women for men as well as male lovers for married women, sometimes using her own house as a brothel. From these gigs, she amassed a healthy income and invested it in her home, which has been described as “surprisingly feminine” and was decked with mirrors all over, to stroke her vanity. She employed three full-time maids and kept mastiffs and parrots, doting especially on the dogs—each one had its own bed with sheets and blankets, like a human's.

But working as a fence may have grown boring for Mary, because during the early 1640s she supposedly made another career switch, becoming a highway-woman who held up travelers at gunpoint. Despite her decades-long criminal lifestyle, she also supposedly became a Royalist, siding with the king and against the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War. In her purported autobiography, she claims to have genuflected before the king when other "Saucy Rogues" wanted him dead, and brags that she was the "onely declared person in our street against the Parliament." Whether she truly supported the monarchy is a subject of debate—some historians believe the story is nothing more than posthumous myth-making, while others argue it's largely accurate, and that she may have supported the monarchy because they "were not as inclined to legislate morality."

Mary doesn't seem to have worked as a highway-woman for long (if she did at all), and disappeared from public view for several years. In 1644, at aged 60, she was released from Bethlem Hospital, a.k.a. Bedlam, London's famous psychiatric asylum, having been allegedly cured of insanity.

She died of dropsy (now known as edema) on July 26, 1659. The Newgate Calendar said of her death: "Moll being grown crazy in her body, and discontented in mind, she yielded to the next distemper that approached her, which was the dropsy; a disease which had such strange and terrible symptoms that she thought she was possessed, and that the devil had got within her doublet."

Her will, written as Mary Markham, lists several benefactors, none of which were her husband (he may have died earlier). She also adopted a practice that was common for widows and spinsters of the time, naming a woman to execute her will—in this case, her niece Frances Edmonds. She was buried in the churchyard of St. Bride's on Fleet Street, having instructed Edmonds to pay extra for her to be interred among the rich and prestigious. Although it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, her marble headstone reportedly bore an epitaph by the poet John Milton, who was a fan of hers:

"Here lies, under this same marble,
Dust, for Time's last sieve to garble;
Dust, to perplex a Sadducee,
Whether it rise a He or She,
Or two in one, a single pair,
Nature's sport, and now her care.
For how she'll clothe it at last day,
Unless she sighs it all away;
Or where she'll place it, none can tell:
Some middle place 'twixt Heaven and Hell
And well 'tis Purgatory's found,
Else she must hide her under ground.
These reliques do deserve the doom,
Of that cheat Mahomet's fine tomb
For no communion she had,
Nor sorted with the good or bad;
That when the world shall be calcin'd,
And the mixd' mass of human kind
Shall sep'rate by that melting fire,
She'll stand alone, and none come nigh her.
Reader, here she lies till then,
When, truly, you'll see her again."

However, like much of her life, the true story of her epitaph may never be known.

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