Madam CJ Walker's great-great granddaughter reveals how the first self-made female millionaire helped Black women escape poverty
Madam CJ Walker should be remembered for much more than being the first female self-made millionaire in America, her great-great-granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles tells Four Nine.
It was, of course, an incredible feat. When she reached the milestone in 1913, she did so in a time where being a woman – especially a Black woman – effectively prevented any financial independence.
"While it's interesting and notable that she became a millionaire, what I really love is that she used her money and influence to empower others," the award-winning author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam CJ Walker says. "She tried to make a difference; to create generational wealth for Black families – and for Black women."
The origins of Madam CJ Walker
Sarah Breedlove, who would come to be known as Madam CJ Walker, was born on a plantation in Delta, Lousiana in 1867. Orphaned at seven, and widowed at 20 with a young child, she worked as a washerwoman until founding the Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company in 1906.
By the time of her death in 1919, aged 51, she had changed the face of the modern hair care industry forever. As well as the lives of countless Black women.
"Madam Walker really instilled pride and gave people confidence," Bundles says. This, she explains, started with solving her own problem by creating a solution for hair loss.
"At the time, 90 per cent of African Americans were living in the rural South, where they didn't have access to indoor plumbing or running water. So, the whole idea of hygiene was really different. They might wash their hair once a month, or sometimes not at all during the winter. This meant they had really horrible scalp disease infections and sores – including Madam Walker, who was going bald."
Empowering Black women
The resulting product proved to be a great hair grower, but Walker, being entrepreneurially minded, noticed another opportunity.
"She began to see that not only was she solving the problem of hair loss amongst Black women, but that haircare products were a means to an end," adds Bundles. "So, she started to employ Black women as sales agents in the Walker company.
"She understood what they really needed was education and economic independence so they would not have to be dependent on white employers." While Walker received testimonials from women who had literally thrown their wigs away, there were others who thanked her for helping them to believe in their own economic viability.
As Bundles tells me, "One woman wrote to her and said: 'You have made it possible for a Black woman to make more money in a day selling your products than she could have in a month working in someone's kitchen.
"She was absolutely a feminist icon by empowering women and giving them options. Not only that, but she was an activist, educator, and a suffragette who hosted meetings for Black suffrage in her home. A true advocate for other women."
Planting seeds for the future
In a world where there are still not enough products for Black hair, Madam CJ Walker's work remains as important as ever "She helped plant the seeds for tailoring beauty to women of colour, and there have been major developments since then," Bundles says.
Nearly all of these initiatives have been driven by women of colour, and the economic opportunity for them remains rife.
"It's self-care," Bundles muses. "Women have always taken care of themselves, but I really see it in communities of colour. It gives women an opportunity to support, nurture and communicate with each other."
Far from being frivolous, this self-care and self-confidence can "lead to doing other things", as it did with the women of Madam CJ Walker's generation.
One criticism that has repeatedly been levelled at the entrepreneur is that she subscribed to eurocentric beauty standards. This, Bundles states, is simply incorrect.
"I know that people think, 'Oh, Madam Walker was trying to make Black women look white'," she continues. "But I think they don't understand that her real issue was trying to heal scalp infections, which prevented hair from growing. That, and giving Black women more versatility [in terms of hairstyling].
"Madam Walker was very aware of the criticism that people had. She actually said, 'Let me correct the erroneous impression held by some that I claim to straighten hair. I grow hair. I want the great masses of my people to have pride in themselves'."
Netflix's 'Self Made'
Bundles' biography of her great-great-grandmother is, of course, the inspiration behind the recent Netflix miniseries, Self Made.
While she praises Octavia Spencer's performance for "really embodying the confidence, perseverance and tenacity of Madam Walker," she admits that it's the "Hollywood version of the story".
Bundles adds: "I liked seeing prosperous Black people during the early 20th century, because I think many people have no idea that there were successful Black people in the early 1900s. And it was great to see women in business. But there was a lot about it that was historically inaccurate."
Madam Walker's legacy, understandably, means a lot to Bundles, and not just because she is related to her by blood. For her, her great-great-grandmother's biggest feat was that she empowered women. And that she still continues to do so.
"Madam CJ Walker, for me, sets the stage for women who develop confidence in themselves. Women who want to move forward. And women who then do something to make their communities better."