Posts Tagged ‘Feminists’

MADAME C.J. WALKER (1867-1919) First Self-Made American Woman Millionaire

In African-American women, American History, Biography, Entrepreneurs, Feminists, Guiness Book of Records, Hair, History, Millionaires, People, Uncategorized, women on March 22, 2010 at 8:12 PM

Madame C .J. Walker

Madame C. J. Walker turned a bad hair day into a fortune and a Guinness World Record.  She followed her dream, literally, turning her life into a true “rags to riches” story. 

Sarah Breedlove was the fifth of six children born to former slaves in Louisiana. Both of her parents died when she was seven years old, but being an orphan wasn’t a life sentence to poverty.   She moved in with her older sister and brother-in-law and survived by working in the cotton fields of Louisiana and Mississippi.  This turned out to be a bad situation, so at age 14 she married Moses McWilliams to escape her brother-in-law’s abuse.  

Four years after her marriage, Breedlove had a baby girl.  Two years later her husband died and she was again forced to find her own way.  She moved to St. Louis where her four brothers had become successful barbers.  She earned $1.50 a day working as a washer woman and eventually saved enough money to send her daughter to school.  

Breedlove’s own education was spotty.  When she reached school age, there were no funds allocated by the white legislators in Louisiana to educate black children.  Then she was pressed into working full time to contribute to the household of her sister and brother-in-law.  In St. Louis, she managed to improve her reading and writing with the help of the women at the St. Paul AME church.  These women also became her social network and eventually an inspiration for growing her business. 

Loss and abandonment followed Breedlove to St. Louis.  All her brothers died and she married and divorced John Davis.  In addition, an ailment that caused her to lose almost all her hair plagued her. She desperately tried various homemade remedies and store bought products.  One potion she used was created by Anne Malone, and in 1905 Breedlove moved to Denver as a sales rep for Malone.  

Life took a turn for the better in Denver.  Not one to depend on another, Breedlove wanted to develop her own hair products.  The formula for a solution to her problem was revealed to her in a dream.  “…One night I had a dream…a black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up in my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, mixed it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out. I tried it on my friends; it helped them. I made up my mind to begin to sell it.”1 She worked with a pharmacist to develop her own line that rivaled Malone’s. 

Her love life was looking up, too.  She married newspaperman Charles Joseph Walker.  Breedlove changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker, and it proved to have the sophisticated sound that instilled confidence in shoppers.  Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower scalp conditioner was her ticket to success. As for her marriage, unfortunately the third time was not a charm, and they divorced after six years.  

Madam Walker remembered the relationships she developed with the women at the church in St. Louis.  She saw a large potential market in such fellowships and gave product demonstrations at churches and lodges. She also implemented a door to door, grass roots selling strategy that led to hiring individual sales agents. Walker acknowledged that her level of education was insufficient to run a profitable business, so she hired a former teacher to tutor her privately.  

The Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company was founded with five original products.  Expansion was inevitable, and for a year and a half she moved to Pittsburgh and opened the Lelia College of Beauty Culture, named after her daughter.  In 1910 Walker moved her entire operation to Indianapolis where she built a factory, training school, and hair and nail salon.  

Walker’s success was three-fold.  First, she accrued an enormous personal wealth.  Second, she provided economic opportunity for black women which gave them an alternative to domestic labor. Her sales agents could potentially earn between $5 and $15 dollars a day when unskilled white laborers were only earning about $11 a week.2 The sales force was organized into local and state clubs with opportunities for management on every level, a model that is used in many companies today.  In 1917 the Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America was big enough to hold a convention in Philadelphia.  

Third, Walker believed that with wealth comes responsibility, and she became a role model for using her riches to support political and philanthropic causes.  She gave generously to African-American organizations and instilled this virtue in her sales force.  At the 1917 convention, Walker gave out awards to her agents not just for their business achievements but also for their political activism.  

The headquarters for the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company remained in Indianapolis, but in 1916 Walker and her daughter moved to Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, and Walker supervised the business from there.  Their new home was a 30-room mansion designed for them by black architect Vertner Tandy, and Walker spared no expense on the furnishings.  The estate was named Villa Lewaro after the first two letters of her daughter’s name: Lelia Walker Robinson, and is in the National Register of Historical Places. 

During the last year of Walker’s life, total sales of her company exceeded $500,000 and she had trained some 40,000 sales agents serving customers the U.S., Central America and the Caribbean.3 Her legacy includes The Guinness Book record as the first self-made American woman millionaire, and in 1998 the U.S. Postal Service put her image on a stamp. 

QUESTION:  What would you do if someone gave you one million dollars today? 

                                 © 2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved 



2Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Madam’s Crusade”, Time magazine, December 7, 1998, Canadian edition. 


ANNIE KOPCHOVSKY LONDONDERRY (1870? – 1947) Rode A Bicycle Around the World

In adventure, American History, Biography, Entrepreneurs, Feminists, History, People, Trivia, Uncategorized, Victorian Women, women on March 9, 2010 at 12:56 PM

Annie Londonderry

Annie Kopchovsky left her husband and young children to circumnavigate the globe in order to prove women were as capable as men.  Was she crazy and irresponsible or courageous and heroic?    

Although Kopchovsky was born in Latvia, she became an American as a young child, moving with her family to Boston.  At 18 she married Max Kopchovsky, a peddler, and within the next four years they had three children.    

A master at self promotion, it’s not totally clear which details of the story are true or created by Kopchovsky to enhance her ability to make money.  Nevertheless, the inspiration for this incredible journey is attributed to a bet.  Two wealthy Bostonians were sitting around their club discussing the fairer sex.  One asserted that the modern woman could do just about anything a man could, and his companion took the bait.  They shook on a wager that a woman could ride a bicycle around the world in 15 months and earn $5,000 along the way.  The precedent for this challenge was Thomas Stevens who completed a similar feat in 1887.    

It’s not clear why she felt compelled to do this since she had never ridden a bicycle before, but Kopchovsky was likely caught up in the craze of women who were using the vehicle to express new freedoms.  Susan B. Anthony was quoted in the New York World in 1896 as saying bicycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”   

On June 27, 1894, 24-year-old Kopchovsky hopped on her 42-pound Columbia woman’s bike wearing the long skirt, corset and high collar of the time.  Perhaps creating the first Mr. Mom, she waved goodbye to her husband and three small children and some fans from the local cycling club as she headed off for New York.  One newspaper reported her departure saying she “sailed away like a kite down Beacon Street.” She carried with her only a change of clothes, a pearl-handled pistol and a lot of chutzpa.  The Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company offered her $100.  In return for their sponsorship, she agreed to carry their placard on her bike and adopt the name “Annie Londonderry.”   

From New York she rode to Chicago arriving on September 24th.  By then she had lost 20 pounds and realized that if she was to continue, she would have to make some major changes.  First, the bicycle was too heavy, so she switched to a 21-pound Sterling model with a man’s frame, one gear and no brakes.  Second, it was impossible to ride a man’s bike in woman’s attire, so she first donned bloomers and then eventually wore a man’s riding suit for the rest of the trip.   

Her original plan was to continue riding west, but the impending winter made it necessary for her to switch direction.  She rode back to New York and sailed to Le Havre, France, arriving there in early December.  Things did not go well at first.  Her bike was impounded by customs officials, her money was stolen, and the French press declared that she was too muscular to be a woman, thereby assigning her to the category of “neutered beings.”  Somehow she was able to turn things around, and, despite inclement weather, she made it from Paris to Marseilles in two weeks via cycling and train.  In Marseille, Londonderry (as she was now known) boarded the steamship “Sydney.”  Ports of call included Alexandria, Colombo, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Nagasaki and Kobe.  To prove that she had actually been there, she had to get the signature of the United States Consul in each location.      

Londonderry became a real entrepreneur.  She kept herself going with income from displaying advertising banners on her bike and her person and telling her story.  Telling the truth was less important than fundraising, and she concocted many stories about her background.  In France she intrigued people with tales of being an orphan, an accountant, a wealthy heiress, a lawyer, a Harvard medical student, the inventor of a new method of stenography, the cousin of a U.S. congressman and the niece of a U.S. senator.  In addition she sold promotional photos, silk handkerchiefs, souvenir pins and autographs.   

Londonderry returned to America via the San Francisco harbor on March 23, 1895.  From there she pedaled to Los Angeles and then through Arizona and New Mexico to El Paso. She headed north and arrived in Denver on August 12 and then continued on to Cheyenne where she jumped on a train that carried her through Nebraska.  From there she hopped back on the bike bound for Chicago, where she arrived on September 12.  It’s assumed that she rode the train home to Boston where she arrived on September 24, 15 months from when she left.   

During her trip across America, Londonderry captivated audiences with stories from exotic places and earned enough money from her lectures to supplement the other earnings and make the $5,000 as required in the challenge.  She described hunting tigers with German royalty in India and a brush with death, nearly being killed by “Asiatics” because they thought she was an evil spirit.  She became involved in the Sino-Japanese war of 1895.  On the front lines she fell through a frozen river and ended up in a Japanese prison with a bullet wound in her shoulder.  Whether true or invented, audiences loved her tales and the press ate them up.   

After returning to Boston, Londonderry was accused of traveling more “with” a bicycle than “on” one, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm for her achievements.  On October 20, 1895 the New York World described her trip as “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.”   Both the newspaper and Londonderry wanted to cash in further on her triumph, so she accepted the offer to write feature articles under the by-line “The New Woman.”  Seeing more potential from her peddling adventure than in her husband’s peddling business, she moved her family to New York for her new journalism career.  Her first article was about her round-the-world bicycle adventure.  “I am a journalist and ‘a new woman,’ ” she wrote, “if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do.”   

QUESTION:  What is the most interesting, daring or challenging thing that you have known one of your parents to do?  How did it influence your life?   

                                   © 2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved   


“Champion of Her Sex,” New York Sunday World, 2 February 1896, p. 10.

ANNE BONNY (1698?-1782?) & MARY READ (1690?-1721) Pirates of the Caribbean

In adventure, Biography, Feminists, History, People, Pirates, Trivia, Uncategorized, women on February 24, 2010 at 3:25 AM

Anne Bonny

Anne Bonny and Mary Read were feminists long before that word came into common usage. They established themselves as successful pirates, breaking through the biggest glass ceiling of their day. In fact, history has romanticized them so much that in recounting their lives, it’s difficult to separate fact from speculation.    

Anne Bonny was allegedly born sometime around 1700 in Ireland, the love child of attorney William Cormac and the maid. When Mrs. Cormac found out about the affair, she exposed her husband’s infidelity and ruined his reputation. This forced Cormac and the maid out of town, and they moved way out of town to the United States, settling in Charleston, South Carolina. He reestablished himself as a lawyer, made a fortune, and bought a plantation.    

Stories differ about Bonny’s teenage years. One account says she stabbed a servant girl in the stomach with a table knife. Some claim that the source of her temper was the death of her mother. All agree that about age 16 she married James Bonny, a poor sailor, wanna-be pirate and opportunist. This charming fellow was not her father’s choice for a son-in-law, so he disinherited his daughter. Whether Bonny set the plantation on fire in revenge or not is disputed. We do know that at some point the Bonnys moved to Nassau in the Bahamas, a popular base for pirate operations.    

 Bonny became restless while her husband was away perfecting his pillaging and plundering and beefing up his resume as a buccaneer. She met John “Calico Jack” Rackham in one of the local bars, and they had an affair. James Bonny discovered his wife’s indiscretion and dragged her in front of the governor for punishment. Governor Rogers sentenced Bonny to flogging, but Rackham did the chivalrous thing and came to her rescue. Together they stole away on his ship, Revenge, and as a crewmember, Bonny began her career as a pirate.    

Mary Read was born about 1690 in England to an impoverished widow of a sea captain. When Read’s older brother died, her mom dressed her like a boy to trick her mother-in-law (who did not like girls) into providing financial support. Grandma was duped and gave them money until she died.    

 Cross-dressing proved so successful for Read that she used it to get work as a footman, and then become a soldier. She fell in love with a fellow soldier, disclosed her true gender, and they got married. Together they ran The Three Horseshoes inn in the Netherlands. Read adapted herself to the role of the wife of an innkeeper and dressed like a woman until her husband’s sudden death.    

On her own, Read relied on previous experience and used her husband’s clothes to disguise herself again as a man. She eventually ended up on a merchant ship bound for the Caribbean. That ship was captured by pirates and Read was forced to join them. This ended up being a dead end job, so the crew accepted the King’s Pardon around 1718, and continued operations as privateers.    

Bonny and Read met in Nassau. Even though they were the only two female pirates, they became friends instead of rivals. No less capable because of their gender, they quickly proved their worth to Rackham by helping him steal an armed sloop from the Nassau harbor. Onboard the ship both women donned the traditional male pirate attire for battle. Apparently they had the kickass, ‘take no prisoners” attitude to match as a fellow crewmate described them as being “very profligate, cursing and swearing much, and very ready and willing to do anything on board.” 1    

Bonny and Read loved to fight, and they deserved much of the credit for the successful exploits of Rackham and his crew. In October 1720, the crew of the Revenge was caught unaware while anchored off the coast of Jamaica. After celebrating recent victories with extensive merrymaking, the male crewmembers were below deck sleeping off their drunken stupor when the ship was attacked. Pirate hunter Captain Jonathan Barnet, an emissary of Governor Lawes of Jamaica, attempted a takeover, and it was left to Bonny and Read to defend the ship. Despite their valiant efforts, the two women were no match for the attackers and eventually surrendered. Rackham and his entire crew, including Bonny and Read, were captured, tried and sentenced to death by hanging. Bonny visited Rackham in jail before his execution, but she wasn’t feeling very sympathetic. Her final words to him were, “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.”    

 At their sentencing, Bonny and Read “pleaded their bellies.” By declaring themselves pregnant they received a stay of execution until after the birth of their babies. It is most widely believed that Read died in prison either of illness or in childbirth.    

There is no record of Bonny’s execution or her release. However, most speculation supports the story that she was ransomed by her father, gave birth to Rackham’s son and was buried in Charleston, South Carolina. One source gives her the benefit of a true Hollywood ending by marrying a fellow Carolinian and having eight more children.    

QUESTION:  What career would you love to try? 

                            © 2010 Debbie Foulkes  All Rights Reserved