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.

“Kisses to the Little Ones”: Martha Jefferson Randolph & 18th Century Motherhood

by Katy Gehred

The little “about me” blurb at the end of all my posts says that if you have any questions
about Thomas Jefferson, I’m the one to ask.

Well, this is 100% true. As anybody who knows me for more than three minutes finds
out, I used to work as a tour guide at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. (Don’t know what
that is? Look at the back of a nickel. That’s right. I worked THERE.)

I love the Teej as much as the next history nerd. In fact, on my list of “crush-worthy
Founding Fathers” he is second only to historical dreamboat John Adams.

Look at that handsome, non slave-holding, loyal to his wife son of a gun. SWOON.

HOWEVER. My bizarre personal fondness for the Founding Fathers aside, I am, first and
foremost, a women’s historian. After delivering five 40 minute tours of Monticello every
day for a few months I got sick of talking about the 6’2” amateur scientist president. Just
to switch things up I started to build up an arsenal of knowledge about his daughter,
Martha Jefferson Randolph.

MJR has played a largely anecdotal role in history, she’s TJ’s eldest daughter, and
historians love quoting Jefferson’s letters to her as a examples of how much of a big
softie the Teej was when it came to his kids.

But MJR herself has some of the most fascinating letters I’ve ever read, and as the
mother of ELEVEN CHILDREN, I thought that she fit the bill pretty nicely for this month’s
theme.

TJ was a prolific letter writer, and he demanded that his children and grandchildren write him on a steady basis. This was partially because he was interested in their lives,
and also because he was something of a worrier. He told his daughter he didn’t care
if she had no time to write, she just needed to scribble down “All is well” and he’d be
happy.

So Martha wrote him. A lot. And she went into a lot of detail about her family, detail
that is usually ignored by TJ historians because it doesn’t exactly say a lot about his
political life.

But I’m a women’s historian and I say sucks to your political life, lets take a look at early
18th century motherhood, shall we?

There are some things about which MJR writes that make early 18th century motherhood
seem pretty similar to modern motherhood. For instance, kids were and are adorable.

Take this letter from Martha to TJ, writing about her five-year-old Ellen and two year old
Cornelia.

“Ellen counts the weeks and continues storing up complaints against Cornelia whom
she is perpetually threatening with your displeasure. Long is the list of misdemeanors
which is to be communicated to you, amongst which the stealing of 2 potatoes carefully
preserved 2 whole days for you but at last stolen by Cornelia forms a weighty article.”
MJR to TJ January 31, 1801

Jefferson loved these little family tidbits and demanded more of them in her letters,
particularly when they were about Ellen, who Martha called her father’s “little seet
heart”.

MJR was slightly embarrassed by her oldest son Thomas Jefferson Randolph (she
calls him Jefferson) because he just refused to wear shoes for the vast majority of his
childhood. The historian in me ventures that this might have been partially influenced
by his playmates–mostly the enslaved boys on the plantation–who didn’t have the same
societal pressure to wear shoes that the little white master had. Just a thought.

Her seventh daughter, named Septimia in honor of that fact, went through a phase
where she called any animal a cat. “she calls every thing cat, sheep, horses, the dove
and even the landau, she distinguishes but between two things, men, & cats…” Cornelia
to Virginia Randolph Trist Nov. 7, 1814

But MJR’s life wasn’t just a heartwarming family sitcom set in the early 1800s. Some of
her parenting techniques come across as pretty callous to a modern reader, particularly
with regards to education. She worries constantly over her two eldest children, Jefferson and Anne.

“My 2 eldest are uncommonly backward in every thing much more so than many others,
who have not had half the pains taken with them.” MJR to TJ January 31, 1801

Her oldest son, Jefferson, she writes, is “quicker than I had ever thought him possible
to be,” but she is afraid he’s too far behind to ever catch up. Although he received an
education outside of the home, she was “seriously uneasy at his not going to school.”
MJR to TJ, April 16, 1802

Even Thomas Jefferson, who loved his grandchildren so much that he spoiled them
constantly and was always bringing them cake when he came home, figured that the
most his eldest grandson had in him intellectually was to be “an industrious farmer.” TJ
to MJR Feb. 5, 1801

Poor Anne, described by her mother in the same letter where she calls
her “backward”, “does not want memory but she does not improve. She appears to
learn absolutely without profit.” Ouch.

MJR eventually admits that her constant worries about the intelligence of her two
oldest children are “unreasonable”, “for surely if they turn out well with regard to
morals I ought to be satisfied, tho I feel that I never can sit down quietly under the idea
of their being blockheads.” MJR to TJ April 16, 1802

But the disconcerting honesty with which MJR treats her children’s strengths and
weaknesses is just one of many differences between parenting in the early 1800s and
parenting today. While MJR certainly took an active role in the raising of her children,
she had a “Mammy” do quite a bit of her work for her. At Monticello the enslaved
woman whom the children all knew as Mammy was named Priscilla Hemings. She took
care of the kids and even had sole responsibility for switching (hitting) them when they
deserved it. The children mentioned her in letters to one another after they were all old
enough to read and write. Once Septimia started to crawl, for example, Cornelia wrote
to her younger sister, “Mammy don’t like her to do that because she says that it makes
her too dirty.” Cornelia to Virginia Nov. 7, 1814

Modern comparisons might be made to having a live-in sitter or nanny, but Priscilla
couldn’t choose the family for whom she worked, or her hours, and she had no wages.
Her dedication to raising Martha’s children was taken for granted, as an enslaved
woman was meant to be grateful to her owners for their paternalistic care of her.

References to slavery in MJR’s letter’s can be jarring for one looking for charming family
stories.

The early 18th century was also a scary time for mothers, as medical science was pretty
much guesswork and bleeding was considered a go-to cure for just about everything.

It was incredibly common for a mother to lose her child, and infancy and childhood
were particularly dangerous times. Losing a child was always a horrifying experience,
but due to its great frequency it was treated with a little bit more emotional distance.
In modern times it might seem strange, but when MJR’s third daughter, Ellen, died at a
year old, they just named the next daughter Ellen again.

MJR had 12 children total, 11 of whom survived to adulthood, which was astonishingly
lucky. She was not without her scares, though. In 1801 both Cornelia and Ellen came
down with a bad fever, which MJR thought might be caused by worms. She described it
to her father:

“It was a terrible moment. Ellen and Cornelia were particularly ill both delirious one
singing and laughing the other (Ellen) gloomy and terrified equally unconscious of the objects around them. My God what a moment for a Parent. The agonies of Mr.
Randolph’s mind seemed to call forth every energy of mine. I had to act in the double
capacity of nurse to my children and comforter to their Father.” MJR November 18,
1801

By the next time Ellen was delirious with fever, MJR was capable of making a joke about
it. Apparently whenever Ellen wasn’t lost in feverish delirium, she was reading one
of the texts her grandfather had sent her. “Judge of my feelings My Dearest Father
at seeing her escaping me so rapidly and often when hanging over her in agonies
indescribable to have some question of natural history which she was reading at the
time addressed to me by the little sufferer the activity of whose mind even the most
acute bodily pain was never capable of subduing.” MJR to TJ July 12 1803

Flippancy aside however, MJR closes that particular letter by saying “I reflect with
horror upon that week that no language can paint.”

And so you can see how MJR’s letters paint a picture of what motherhood
was like back at the turn of the century. It’s tempting, as an historian, to focus on all
the things that make MJR’s experience similar to a modern one, but it’s important to
remember that she lived in an extremely different time. Parenting was a bit more gritty
back then, accompanied by the constant knowledge that your child could be taken
from you by illness at any time. If you were an enslaved mother, your child could be
taken from you by death, or at the whim of your owner, a daily reality for thousands of
parents at the time that is now unthinkable to a modern reader.

It’s wildly arrogant to pretend that the past is something that a modern person can ever
truly understand. But thanks to alternative ways of looking at history (looking at letters
that are ignored for their mundane nature, for instance) we can at the very least gain a
new perspective.

That said, I’m going to close with a common refrain at the end of MJR’s letters, which
has to sound familiar to some modern mothers out there.

“I must beg you to recollect that I write amidst the noises and confusion of six children
interrupted every moment by their questions, and so much disturbed by [their] pratling
around me that I catch my self repeatedly writing [their words] instead of my own
thoughts.” MJR to TJ Jan. 14, 1804

Darn noisy kids.

********

Katy Gehred is a pop-culture obsessed feminist who is too enthusiastic about too many things. Hobbies include co-editing this blog, knitting, smashing the patriarchy with a hammer, and nerdfighting. She is currently working on her master’s degree in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College, and if you have any questions at all about Thomas Jefferson, she is the person to contact.

Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?: Sex Scandals in US Politics

Katy Gehred

Women have been actively barred from taking part in elections in America for a very large portion of our country’s history. It took suffragettes almost a century of hard battling to scrape our way up to the vote in 1920. But there is one particularly unimaginative way that women have been active in US politics since the birth of our nation. Sex scandals. The way that sex scandals are handled in US politics says a lot about gender and power in our culture.

Sex scandals are interesting political phenomena. They’re like the Snooki of political news coverage, ubiquitous, and yet never really taken seriously. Even in cases where crimes have been committed (actual illegal crimes not just crimes against morality) a lot of the time they aren’t even prosecuted. Eliot Spitzer violated the Mann Act when he asked that sex worker Ashley Dupre cross state lines to see him while he was in Washington. This made him guilty of a federal crime, and yet he received no legal repercussions [1]. Frequently sex scandals don’t even cause much political backlash. Most senators who are embroiled in sex scandals lose points at the polls, but not enough to undo an incumbency advantage.  And hey, Bill Clinton lied to our faces about Monica Lewinsky and we couldn’t even manage to impeach him.

This isn’t to say that there are no consequences to political sex scandals. Remember Mark Sanford? Back in 2009 there were rumors that he’d be a GOP candidate in this election. Until it came out that instead of “hiking the Appalachian Trail” (still my favorite euphemism for sex ever) he was crying in the arms of his Argentinian mistress. In the flurry of embarrassing press releases that followed, he resigned as Head of the Republican Governors association.  Anthony Weiner, of course, fulfilled the destiny imparted on him by his name by sexting lewd images to a number of young women via Facebook and Twitter. He too, resigned. Herman Cain provided the first juicy scandal of this election when it was released that two female employees of the National Restaurant Association had accused him of sexual harassment. And here we sit, right in the middle of the NObama vs. Mittens showdown, not a Cain in sight. This isn’t France, in the U.S. sex scandals are actually scandalous.

And it’s not as though this is new. Before women got the vote they were still influencing elections and ruining all kinds of men’s lives with their sexy intrigues. (Note: I am fully aware that even before women had the vote they were politically active and influenced elections without using their vaginas as a weapon even once. I just prefer to roll around in the muck with my fellow mudslingers.) Alexander Hamilton caused something of s stir back in 1797 when he admitted to having sex with Maria Reynolds, a poor 23-year-old woman who had come to his door asking for monetary assistance. As Hamilton himself said, “it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable [2].” How exactly he thought that his particular kind of consolation was going to help her pay her bills I have no idea, but you know, these scandals don’t tend to make a lot of sense. But here’s the thing about this one, Hamilton admitted freely to this seedy sexual affair in order to divert attention away from a financial scandal of which he was being accused. Being guilty of having an affair with a destitute woman 10 years his junior (who was actually being prostituted out by her husband) was less bad in his eyes than being financially corrupt. It certainly didn’t help his political career, but it didn’t stop his face from ending up on the 10-dollar bill either.

Sex Scandals aren’t great, but they certainly aren’t the worst political misstep you can make. Sure, they might destroy someone’s career, and most definitely somebody’s marriage, but they aren’t like, serious business. The concept of the public sphere vs. private sphere (work and politics vs. home and family) keeps men’s lives neatly compartmentalized. General knowledge (and oh how I am loath to quote that dubious source) seems to state that a man can be a total freakin’ player in his personal life and still do a fine job as a leader of our nation. What goes on behind closed doors (or on intimate cell phone pics) is just fluff, and doesn’t have anything to do with the public sphere. From the news sometimes it looks like Washington is a sort of orgy of awkward middle aged men who want to get a little of that rock star lifestyle along with their, you know, well respected positions of actual power and authority

I fully recognize that my position on this issue actually puts me on the same side as Republicans, who face more consequences for their sex scandals than Democrats do. As you might imagine, that’s a rare thing for the co-editor of a women’s history blog (Watch this moment as it shoots past like a falling star). However, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I don’t like it when a politician can’t keep it in his pants. I don’t believe that integrity only matters when it does not involve your penis.  The whole “boys will be boys” attitude that implies that male politicians are obviously going to be unfaithful to their wives, and in fact have a god given right to due to their sexual drive, is a perspective for which I have absolutely no sympathy [3].  Now, do I believe that these men should be forced to parade around the square with a scarlet letter A pinned to their chests whilst I throw rotten fruit at them and shout abuse?  Or get anything like the huge amount of backlash Kristen Stewart has gotten for cheating on RPatz? No, I’m just saying that it will make me less likely to vote for them. And I’m not ashamed of that.

Everybody has an opinion on sex scandals. Politics, for people who are not constantly enmeshed in it, can be confusing and frustrating. As much as the media attempts to simplify issues and politicians water things down for voters, there are some intricacies of foreign policy and economics that are just impossible to encompass in a sound byte.  But everybody understands a sex scandal. As most feminists are well aware, just about everybody has an opinion on gender politics because just about everybody experiences it on a daily basis. I may not quite understand the reasoning behind the drone bombings of the Middle East, but I know that if my boyfriend was cheating on me with somebody younger and hotter I’d be pissed.

Just because everybody can have an opinion on a sex scandal doesn’t mean that sex scandals don’t matter. The line between the public and the private sphere is not actually all that clear, when examined closely. When a politician’s actions actually hurt someone, like cheating on a spouse, or harassing someone, that says something about their character.

And it affects how I vote.

Katy Gehred is a pop-culture obsessed feminist who is too enthusiastic about too many things. Hobbies include co-editing this blog, knitting, smashing the patriarchy with a hammer, and nerdfighting. She is currently working on her master’s degree in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College, and if you have any questions at all about Thomas Jefferson, she is the person to contact.



[1] Girard, Stephanie. “It May Be Wrong, But It Is Not a Crime: The Negligible Legal Consequences for the Amoral Sexual Activity of Men in Public Office.” In Sex Scandals and American Politics. Edited by Alison Dagnes. Continuum International Publishing Group: New York. 2011.

[2] Cogan, Jacob Katz. “The Reynolds Affair and the Politics of Character.” Journal of the Early Republic. Vol. 16, Issue 3. 09/01/1996. 390.

[3] Sachleben, Mark. “A Framework for Understanding: Sex Scandals in Comparison.” In Sex Scandals and American Politics. Edited by Alison Dagnes. Continuum International Publishing Group: New York. 2011.

Screw You, Tim Tebow: Thoughts from a Feminist Sports Fan

{Katy Gehred is a first-year graduate student in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. Originally from Dayton, Ohio; she is currently researching gender in early-America.}

Photo courtesy of SI.com

Prior to the Broncos/Steelers game of January 8, one of my friends posted a Facebook status which read something along the lines of: “Well, one of them will rape you and the other won’t let you get an abortion.”

I’m sure that dark comedy like that was floating all over the internet before the Tim Tebow/Ben Roethlesberger showdown. I noticed because usually the sports smack-talk that shows up on my feed is humorous at best, and at worst annoying; rarely does it touch upon topics that I actually care about.

Now, as a Packers fan I know a little something about loyalty to a sports team (unlike Brett Favre, OH SNAP!) and so I understand how trivial it is. I mean, I root for the Packers, I get emotionally involved to the point of shouting at my television screen and then I move on with my life. Loyalty to a specific sports team is simultaneously insanely dedicated and astonishingly trivial. Because after the blood, sweat, tears, and emotion of a football game is over, it all comes down to a bunch of guys in weird outfits running around and knocking each other over.

Perhaps I’m revealing myself as a bad fan or something, but I’ve always assumed that the whole point of football was that it didn’t matter. It’s a cathartic way to have some silly regional pride—or vent some pent up emotions—while eating Buffalo wings with people you like.

And so when a scandal happens, like Ben Roethlisberger or Kobe Bryant being accused of rape—or the horrible Penn State child abuse case—all of a sudden something fun and cathartic gets mixed up with something deeply serious and disturbing. And that can be conflicting for a fan whose parents dressed them in team jerseys before they could even talk; it’s hard to shake that kind of dedication.

Much ink has been spilled about sex scandals in sports. The media loves pitting the stereotypical he-man sports fan—who’s never taken a Women’s Studies course in his life— against the anti rape-culture of women’s rights activism. Rape cases and sex scandals are rarely cut and dry and so a whole lot of hate and victimizing gets spat out before the media finally loses its interest. And by then, usually, the perpetrator goes back to being a role-model for children and making more money than I’ll see in my entire life.

And so life is hard for a feminist sports fan. I certainly don’t have any answers. Is it better to just pack it in and boycott sports? When I think about the beer commercials I’ll have to sit through that sounds pretty tempting. But then I think about that Giants game last week when I could hear everyone in the apartments around mine celebrating simultaneously. I’ll never hate sports, but I just can’t forgive the rape apologists either.