WoW Blog (Woman of the Week) Blog

WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

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Woman of the Week – Madam C.J. Walker

Posted December 09, 2019 4:30 PM by lmno24

Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madam C.J. Walker, was an African-American entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist. She was one of the wealthiest self-made women in America at the time of her death in 1919.

Her fortune came from developing a line of cosmetics and haircare specifically targeted for African-American women. Her products were sparked from a common issue among many African American women at the time – dandruff and other scalp ailments. At the time, soap was very rough and used harsh products like lye.

Her life had a rough beginning. Her parents died young and she was sent to live with her sister and brother in law, who abused her. At 14, she escaped and married her first husband and gave birth to her daughter in 1885. Her husband, Moses McWilliams, passed away only two years later so she moved to St. Louis, where her brothers lived.

She learned about hair care from them, and others who worked as barbers. She worked as a washerwoman for $1.50 a day and went to school at night. She also met her second husband, Charles J. Walker, an advertiser who later helped her market her hair care business.

Around this time, she also noticed her hair falling out and other scalp issues. She began to experiment with multiple remedies and treatments. She came up with a method of hair care that included scalp care and preparation, lotions and using a hot comb. Eventually, the system became known as the Walker System.

There was some controversy alleging that she took some ideas from Annie Pope-Turnbo, an African-American entrepreneur with her own hair care method. It’s unclear exactly what happened, but history does show that Walker worked for Pope-Turnbo as a sales agent before starting her own experimentation and eventually her own line of products. The products were vegetable based and they were a gentler alternative to harsh, lye-based treatments people were used to.

Walker had a knack for self-promotion and business skills and her husband had a successful advertising career. That combination helped her succeed greatly when she took her hair care system around the rural South, educating African-American women about how to best care for their hair. She performed scalp treatments on women who faced similar issues and armed them with the skills and knowledge to care for their hair.

She’d go from town to town holding classes and training “agents” who would continue to share the knowledge and products after Walker left. Eventually, she shifted focused to a mail order business to help supply the “Walker agents” around the country. The business was so successful that she was earning the equivalent of $150,000 a year in today’s market.

She spent much of her earnings on philanthropic efforts. She pledged money to her local YMCA, scholarships and more. Her agents were also successful and many earned up to $40 a month selling the systems, equivalent to about $1,200 today.

When she died in 1919 at age 51, she was eulogized as the first female self-made millionaire in America. Her net worth was about $600,000 when she died. She bequeathed $100,000 to orphanages and much of the remaining fortune was given to charity.

Her daughter took over the company and it continued manufacturing until 1981. In 2016, organic hair and skincare manufacturer Sundial Brands launched a collection of haircare products that bears Walker’s name. The collection is sold at Sephora and is specially formulated to meet the haircare needs for people of color.


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