Madam C.J. Walker has been called the “first self-made female millionaire” in America because of her extraordinary achievements during an extraordinarily horrific period of American history—Jim Crow. She defied expectations. Actually, there were no positive expectations for Black people back then. They were supposed to stay in their subservient and inferior place. Walker didn’t. Nevertheless, the notion of being “self-made” is part of American mythology and the gospel of success, which dominated the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and still echoes today.
As a supposed nod to the importance of individual effort, the myth held that successful people (usually men)—typically defined by their accumulation of wealth and/or status—became successful through their own actions without assistance from others. The label seems to hold well for Walker as applied to other millionaire entrepreneurs of her era. She built a profitable beauty cosmetics business that distributed products across the U.S. and overseas. However, while the label honors Madam Walker’s moxie and agency in her own life’s story, it obscures a critical source of her success—others.
Historian Pamela Walker Laird has shown how patently false the self-made idea is and has been from its inception. In Pull: Networking and Success since Benjamin Franklin, Laird demonstrates how prominent historical figures from Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates did not succeed on their own. In fact, others helped them by giving them access to social capital, networks and resources that enabled their mobility and achievement. Further, she argues that the self-made myth was complicated by race and gender, social markers which have historically determined who has had access to resources and networks to begin with. Instead of self-made, Laird develops the concept of “mutually made” as coined by historian Judith McGaw to capture the ways in which business men supported each other’s success in networks, even as competitors. Laird’s analysis brilliantly displays the problems of the myth, but it was hardly the first critique of its kind with regard to race and gender.
Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins (1859-1930), a Black journalist and writer who edited The Colored American magazine from 1900 to 1904, heavily critiqued the self-made myth. In Pauline Hopkins and the American Dream, historian Alisha R. Knight, Hopkins used her writings on Black success to “expose the racism and sexism inherent in both the gospel of success and the iconic image of the self-made man.” Further, Knight argues, Hopkins used her writings and literature to revise the gospel of individual success from a Black perspective to incorporate the actualization of freedom and equality for African Americans while working collaboratively within the Black community to achieve success. Hopkins was doing this work just as Sarah Breedlove, the orphaned and widowed struggling mother, was beginning to transform into Madam C.J. Walker, the business mogul.
If anything, Walker better represented Hopkins’ presentation of the success myth than the original version because the quest for liberation and equality was essential to her rise and a focus of her efforts to uplift the race. Walker said as much in 1912 when she stressed, “I am in the business world, not for myself alone, but to do all the good I can for the uplift of my race.” In this way, Walker reflects Laird’s notion of being “mutually-made” not only because of her outward focus on helping others, but also due to her emergence from numerous networks of Black women who were critical to her life story.
I explain in great detail in my book how, as a struggling migrant, Sarah Breedlove was part of networks of washerwomen, clubwomen and churchwomen who had an ethos of giving and sharing, and who helped her overcome many obstacles. Additionally, a Black woman named Annie Malone gave young Sarah employment through her own beauty company, which gave her direct exposure to the industry in which she would become a legendary figure. Later, Madam Walker continued collaborating and participating in many of these networks to advocate for racial and gender justice, especially through groups like the National Association of Colored Women, the Court of Calanthe, and her own national network of Walker agents. Additionally, Walker tried to lower barriers to success for other working-class Black women, who likely reminded her of her former self, by offering them funding to help them incubate and open their own salons as part of the Walker system of beauty care.
Therefore, it seems that “mutually-made” is a more fitting description for Walker, and frankly for everyone the self-made mythology has attempted to distinguish. It acknowledges the importance of community, networks and the roles we play in each other’s success. This in no way diminishes Walker’s own determination, but provides proper context for understanding exactly how her story unfolded.
In what ways have you been mutually made? Who has helped you? And who are you helping?