Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri on June 3, 1906, Josephine Baker was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, a world-famous entertainer in dancing, singing, and acting, an activist in the Civil Rights Movement, a spy in the French Resistance during World War II, and the recipient of the French military honor the Croix de guerre, and she deserves credit.
Her parents, Carrie McDonald, a washerwoman, and Eddie Carson, a vaudeville drummer, had a traveling song and dance act that Josephine became a part of around her first birthday. Carson later abandoned Josephine and her mother, leaving the already poor family even more destitute. Josephine, dressed in tatters and persistently starving, began performing on her own in the railroad yards of Union Station, making a meager living while also developing her trademark street smarts.
At eight years old, Josephine started work as an au pair for white families in St. Louis. These families often mistreated the young girl. They would remind her to “be sure not to kiss the baby,” and one of her employers burned her hands when Josephine accidentally used too much soap in the laundry.
A few years later, when she turned thirteen, Josephine dropped out of school and obtained a waitressing job at The Old Chauffeur’s Club. For most of her life, Josephine had lived in the streets in the slums of St. Louis. She scavenged through garbage cans and slept in cardboard shelters during her childhood, but she always found herself work. It was this resolute passion and dedication to live that drove her, a poor girl from the slums, to international renown.
Finally, her street-corner dancing attracted attention. At fifteen, Josephine was recruited to the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show. This was the start of her rise to fame. From the vaudeville show, she traveled to New York City, around the same time as the Harlem Renaissance. She performed at the Plantation Club in two highly successful Broadway revues, Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies. Actually, she wasn’t originally hired to these shows, but she learned all of the dances anyway, making herself the first person to be employed when any of the other dancers were sick or hurt.
In the chorus line, Josephine was the last dancer. This was a particularly special position, as the last dancer needed both comic ability and exceptional technical dancing skill. Traditionally the last dancer in the chorus line would purposefully do all of the dances incorrectly throughout the show, but for the encore performance, the last dancer would get “redemption” by not only performing correctly, but by also performing additional, more complicated steps than the other dancers. Audiences loved her humor, her false clumsiness and exaggerated eye rolling. At the time, Baker was the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville.
Josephine’s relationship to her mother was strained. Though she herself had made a living in the past doing vaudeville performance, McDonald did not believe that dance was a real form of work and wanted Josephine to tend more to her then-husband, Willie Baker, the one of her husbands whose last name she retained. However, it was this turmoil between mother and daughter that incited Josephine to travel to France for the first time.
Baker sailed to Paris, France in the early 1920s. She opened in La Revue Négre on October 2, 1925 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. She became an overnight success for her erotic dancing performances; few others would appear almost entirely naked onstage like Josephine would. Riding her success, she toured throughout Europe but soon returned to France, which, for all intents and purposes, had become her home.
Perhaps the most iconic image of Josephine is that of her doing the “danse sauvage” wearing a skirt made of a string of sixteen artificial bananas for her starring role in La Folie du Jour. This period coincided with the influx of “Art Deco” styles, which was a rebirth of the popularity of non-western designs. Baker was a major fashion icon in this manner, popularizing African styles. Josephine was a sensation and a jaw-dropping performer. She was the most photographed woman in the world, and yet, today, few people know who she is.
In later shows, Josephine performed accompanied by her cheetah, adorably named Chiquita, who wore a diamond collar and would often (allegedly) escape into the orchestra pit, frightening the musicians but entertaining the Parisian audiences. At the same time, Josephine was starring in films that found most of their acclaim in Europe: Siren of the Tropics (1927), Zouzou (1934), and Princesse Tam Tam (1935). She was also recording what would become her most successful song, “J’ai deux amours” (1931).
Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” Hemingway, as well as Langston Hughes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior, referred to her as their muse.
With such high praise from Europe, Josephine traveled back to the United States to star in a 1936 revival of Ziegfield Follies. But American audiences rejected that a black woman could be a major celebrity so adamantly that Josephine returned to France utterly heartbroken, leaving the incredible cruelty of United States critics in her wake (horrifyingly, the New York Times called her a “Negro wench”).
During World War II, Josephine provided both entertainment for the troops and correspondence work for the French Resistance. If you weren’t already convinced that she is extremely cool, read this: she smuggled secret messages written in invisible ink on her music sheets while simultaneously acting as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She used her famous charisma to get invitations to parties at embassies and ministries and pertinent, secret information from the other guests.
Later, in 1941, Josephine and her entourage traveled to North Africa. Though they cited the reason as Josephine’s health, which was shaky at best from her chronic bouts of pneumonia and several detrimental miscarriages, she was actually there to gather more information for the Resistance. From Morocco, Josephine toured Spain and pinned notes of confidential information to her underwear, correctly assuming that border authorities would not strip search a celebrity.
Her work to help the war effort did not go unnoticed. The French government named her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, among other titles and medals.
Despite her previous traumatic experience in the United States, Josephine returned in the 50s and 60s to fight racism. She and her husband at the time were denied rooms at thirty-six hotels solely because of their skin color. Staunchly anti-segregation and appalled by the treatment of African Americans, she began writing articles and engaged in a media battle with pro-segregation columnist Walter Winchell, who was once her friend an ally. The dispute began because of Josephine’s refusal to play at a segregated club, and Winchell’s opposition to that. He even called her a Communist, a highly grave offense at the time.
Unfortunately, this incident further derailed Josephine’s career in the United States, as she lost her work visa and was unable to return for ten years. Because of her refusal to perform to segregated audiences in spite of harsh consequences and other efforts, such as being the only female speaker at the 1963 March on Washington beside Martin Luther King, Jr., the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People named May 20 Josephine Baker Day.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King even asked Josephine to be the new, unofficial leader of the Civil Rights Movement, but Josephine turned her down because she didn’t want to abandon her children.
By this time, Josephine had had four husbands. She was financially independent from all of them, and none were truly major facets of her life. In fact, she was reportedly bisexual and had many affairs with influential women, including Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe. But she wanted to prove that “children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers,” and she wanted a family, which a long string of miscarriages had previously prevented. So Josephine began adopting children, forming a large household that she referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe.” She had twelve children total, all of whom would often travel cross-country with her.
In 1973, Josephine agreed to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall. She was nervous about whether or not the audience and critics would accept her, but she did it anyway. Garnering a standing ovation prior to even beginning the show, Josephine wept on stage at the enthusiastic welcome and the evidence of growing tolerance.
Two years later, Josephine, now sixty-eight years old, premiered at the Bobino Theater in Paris, with celebrities like Grace Kelly, the then Princess of Monaco, and Sophia Loren in the audience. She performed a medley of routines from her career, which by then had spanned over fifty years. The reviews from this show were some of the best she had ever received. However, only days later, Josephine slipped into a coma, and died from a cerebral hemorrhage at five in the morning on April 12.
Tens of thousands of people walked the streets of Paris to watch Josephine’s funeral procession. The French government gave her a 21-gun salute, making her the first American woman to be buried in France with military honors. She is buried at the Cimetiére de Monaco.
I didn’t know anything about Josephine Baker until a late, impromptu visit to a small restaurant in Manhattan that looked like it might be good. This restaurant turned out to be Chez Josephine, the business run by two of her children to celebrate her life and works. While eating some of the most delicious French food I’ve ever had, I could feel Josephine’s spirit and love running throughout the tiny restaurant and inundating every customer with tolerance, creativity, and fearlessness.
“There is no royal flower strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it, for whatever success I have attained has been the result of much hard work and many sleepless nights.”
Born on a cotton plantation in Louisiana in 1867, Madam C.J. Walker was the first self-made female millionaire in the early twentieth century, and she deserves credit.
Her parents, Owen and Minerva, were recently freed slaves. They named their fifth child, and the first of their children to be born free, Sarah Breedlove. She was made an orphan by the age of seven, and moved to Mississippi to live with her sister Louvinia, where she picked cotton and did household work.
To escape the abuse that she suffered at the hands of Louvinia’s husband and the oppressive working environment, Sarah married a man named Moses McWilliams at age fourteen. In 1885, they had a baby girl, named A’Leila, but Moses’s death when A’Leila turned two provoked the pair to move to St. Louis to live with Sarah’s brothers.
In St. Louis, Sarah worked as a washerwoman. She earned $1.50 a day, which was just enough to send A’Leila to a public school in the city. (My Italian grandmother was a washerwoman in Queens when she first came to the United States-- I wonder if that's how much she made, too.) Sarah herself attended night school, whenever there was any extra money. It was in St. Louis that she met her second husband, Charles J. Walker, who worked in advertising and would help Sarah promote her future business.
When Sarah was young, she experienced a scalp ailment that caused her to lose most of her hair. I can’t imagine having such an illness, especially in a time when femininity was considered important. But instead of wallowing, which is honestly what I would do, Sarah experimented with home hair remedies.
She was so successful in this that, in 1905, a successful, black hair care pioneer named Annie Turnbo Malone hired her as a commission agent (Malone later became her greatest competitor). It was during this time that she perfected her own African American hair care treatments.
Her husband Charles helped her brand her treatments, and encouraged her to take on the name Madam C.J. Walker. Am I the only person mildly annoyed by that? For one thing, the name Sarah Breedlove is absolutely beautiful. And another thing, though Charles certainly helped her with her business, she was the true innovator, the brave woman behind the business who endured so much tragedy and misfortune. As far as I’m concerned, that means that her name should be attached to the success of the line. It's true that this was the tradition of the time, but it still doesn’t make it right.
Nevertheless, it is Sarah who is credited with all of her success, partially due to how she handled her business. In other words, she was smart. She was not only a hair care innovator, but an entrepreneurial, marketing innovator. In 1907, she and her husband traveled around the South and Southeast promoting her products and giving demonstrations of the “Walker Method,” a process involve her own pomade recipe, a certain pattern of brushing, and the use of heated combs.
Not only did she prosper enormously in this, but she also used her success to give back. In 1908, she opened a factory as well as a beauty school in Pittsburgh. When the company, now known as Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, grew too large for the original factory, she had to move to Indianapolis, where she not only manufactured cosmetics but trained sales beauticians called “Walker Agents.”
The Walker Agents promoted Walker’s philosophy of “cleanliness and loveliness” throughout the black communities of the United States. In turn, Walker organized clubs and conventions for her representatives, during which she praised her truly great sales team and organized philanthropic and educational efforts for African American communities.
Sarah and Charles divorced in 1913, after which she traveled throughout Latin America and the Caribbean to spread her products and training techniques. During this time, A’Leila acquired property in Harlem for the business, recognizing the location as potentially culturally significant. And her instinct was correct. When Sarah returned from her trips, she moved into a townhouse in Harlem and became a fixture of the social and political culture there.
While in Harlem, Sarah founded philanthropies that included educational scholarships, donations to retirement homes, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Conference on Lynching, and other organizations dedicated to supporting and advancing the lives of black Americans.
In 1919, at age fifty-one, she died of hypertension in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, in an estate home that she had built for herself. At the time of her death, she was the sole proprietor of her business, which was valued at over one million dollars, and her personal fortune was just shy of that number. She left a third of her estate to A’Leila, who became a celebrated member of the Harlem Renaissance.
Madam C.J. Walker didn’t bear her tough childhood thinking that tragedy and poverty were all she could look forward to. She survived it with inexhaustible hope and a staunch rejection of passivity. In an era in which good personal hygiene was not the norm because of a lack of indoor plumbing and electricity, she saw a hole in the world that needed to be filled. She recognized her position as a role model, as an idol, and used that to be there for her community, involving herself heavily in the culture and politics of her time.
In an article written by A’Leila herself, a few secrets to her mother’s success are revealed. There is one quote in particular that truly resonated with me, as a millennial in a time when no one sees or understands their own efficacy: “I got my start by giving myself a start!”
Being able to drive is so freeing. I remember walking out of the DMV only a few years ago, a passed permit test in one hand and the keys to my mom’s car in the other. For the first time, I would drive home.
It felt like such a long time coming for me, an impatient sixteen year old frustrated with the doldrums of high school, always perched somewhere on the edge of my seat so that I wouldn’t miss the next big adventure. I was independent and audacious, and finally I could act on that part of my personality. Another day of waiting would feel like forever. And now, having driven for about four years, nothing beats the sensation that comes with a full tank of gas.
I can’t imagine a world in which it was not just my age, economic status, or sheer driving ability preventing me from getting a license (fun fact: I failed my first driving test because I ran a stop sign). But, in at least one country, that is the reality, and my gender would’ve been not just a reason, but the reason that I couldn’t get my license.
Saudi Arabia is unique in that it is the only place where women are prohibited from driving. But a group called Women2Drive is “taking the wheel” of freedom anyway (I recently listened to “Jesus, Take The Wheel,” that celebrated Carrie Underwood hit, and I really wanted to do a spin on that for this sentence but it turned out pretty awkward and half-baked, so I apologize).
For at least a decade, women living in Saudi Arabia must acquire signed permission from a mahram, or close male relative, before she can travel, even if that travel is within her own country. This is a fairly difficult legislation to enforce, and so most women do leave the house alone and interact with men unrelated to them, though many of these women have faced severe consequences. In a similar manner, a woman driving is tolerated in rural areas, but only because it is more often the case in these regions that the survival of their families depends on them alone.
Though the law doesn’t specifically dictate that women cannot drive, drivers in Saudi Arabia must have local licenses, and these licenses are not issued to women, effectively prohibiting them from driving.
Religious authorities have even called the act of women driving haram, a word translating to forbidden that represents the highest form of prohibition. If something is haram, it is not just against the rules; it is sacrilegious. Some commonly cited reasons for this classification is that driving a car would require women’s faces to be uncovered, more women on the road would cause congestion, depriving men from the opportunity to drive, and it would be the first step in a disintegration of traditional values, specifically gender-based segregation.
The movement by women for women to lift the ban on driving was first documented in 1990. On November 6th, about twenty Saudi women protested the ban by driving the streets of Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia. Some time into this protest, they were apprehended by traffic cops and taken into custody, released only after each had their mahram sign statements promising that they would never drive again.
But that was not the only consequence: thousands of leaflets with their full names printed next to gender-specific slurs were circulated throughout Riyadh, the women were suspended from their jobs, and they had their passports confiscated. Allegedly, their passports were returned about a year after the arrest and their jobs reinstated, but these women have been kept under surveillance and passed over for promotions ever since.
The next highly publicized event supporting the right to drive came in 2008 on International Women’s Day, which is celebrated every March 8th, when Saudi feminist activist Wajeha al-Huwaider uploaded a YouTube video of herself driving while simultaneously outlining her request for universal driving rights.
Al-Huwaider is a co-founder of The Association for the Protection and Defense of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia, which is just one of the reasons why her life and accomplishments are more than worthy of her own “She Deserves Credit;” a journalist, she has been banned from publishing several times, has presented a petition to King Abdullah advocating for an end to the ban on women drivers, and has campaigned against the mahram laws, all with great risk.
Though the original video was taken down soon after it was published, some clips and translations still exist online.* During the video, al-Huwaider drives through a rural area, which is more accepted and therefore less dangerous, but then fearlessly turns onto a highway without missing a beat.
Al-Huwaider helped with other women’s driving campaigns during the 2011 Saudi Arabian protests by filming Manal al-Sharif, another human rights activists, driving in Khobar, another large city in Saudi Arabia. Al-Sharif was arrested, and then released, and then arrested again the next day. She was finally released on bail later with the conditions that she not drive or talk to the press.
But instead, al-Sharif starred in her own TEDTalk.* She tweets regularly on the issues plaguing her country. She was even one of the women who started the Facebook campaign “Women2Drive,” a movement that called for women to start driving beginning June 17th, 2011.
There is still such a long way to go. It was only a month after the start of Women2Drive’s campaign that Shaima Jastania was sentenced to ten lashes for driving a car in the city of Jeddah. King Abdullah pardoned Jastania, but the powerful and conservative Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz has overturned King Abdullah’s pardon. And yet, since 2011, many women drove anyway, challenging the archaic traditions that oppress them.
These women deserve credit not because they have been able to change the laws of their country. In fact, they haven’t been able to—not yet, anyway. What these women deserve credit for is for trying. When someone acts with courage, it’s not that they aren’t afraid. They are often very, very afraid; the difference is that they don’t let that stop them. The women of Women2Drive and other human’s rights activists all over the world have tested their strength, tested their courage, and have come out stronger and more powerful. With each attempt, each fraction of publicity and awareness gained, we get closer to stop wondering when everyone will have the rights they deserve, and start acting to make sure that they do.
*Watch Wajeha al-Hywaider’s video here and Manal al-Sharif’s TedTalk here.
“I was never afraid. I’d go up any time, any place. The only thing I hated was getting back to the earth so quickly.”
Georgia Ann Thompson was born in North Carolina on April 8, 1893. She weighed three pounds, and she deserves credit.
In late nineteenth century Granville County, North Carolina, most families were poor farmers. Georgia’s life was no different, except that she was always remarkably small, earning her the lifelong nickname of “Tiny.” She married at twelve, and became a mother to daughter Verla only a year later. When her husband died in an accident, Georgia worked fourteen hours in a cotton mill to support Verla, making only forty cents a day. (When I was around twelve and thirteen, I came up with the AIM screen name “LegallyBrunette” and agonized over party invites—well, lack thereof.)
Not much else is known about Georgia’s life before the year 1907, when she attended the State Fair in nearby Raleigh and saw “The Broadwicks and Their Famous French Aeronauts” for the first time. In the act, performers ascended in a hot air balloon basket, then climbed over the side and parachuted back down to the ground. Tiny was so enamored that, immediately following the show, she approached the group’s owner, Charles Broadwick, and asked if she could travel with his performers. Because of her beauty and small stature, just hitting above four feet at fifteen years old, Charles Broadwick agreed.
Leaving Verla with her grandmother and promising to send a portion of her salary home, Georgia joined the carnival and became Tiny Broadwick.
Tiny parachuted off a hot air balloon for the first time one year later, at the next North Carolina State Fair. Broadwick emphasized her unusual features and age in his act, marketing Tiny as “The Doll Girl.” He dressed her in ruffled bloomers, pink bows, a bonnet, and ribbons. She detested this completely, which totally just makes her cooler. At her core, she wasn’t a doll, or a princess; rather, she was a courageous daredevil, who left her male contemporaries in the history of aviation in the atmosphere.
Because it was scandalous in this time for single men and women to travel together, Broadwick got permission from Tiny’s father to legally adopt her. From this point, their relationship truly resembled that of a close father and daughter. Broadwick taught her the craft of parachuting, and Tiny kept his carnival business afloat, attracting huge crowds and countless newspaper articles declaring her the “most daring female aeronaut ever seen.”
And she was. Tiny executed stunts with little to no fear, though she had several near-fatal incidents throughout her career. Some harrowing examples include when she landed on the caboose of a moving train and another instance when she got tangled in the vanes of a windmill. She even escaped a burning hot air balloon. She broke bones and dislocated her shoulder more than she could count, but she never stopped jumping or pioneering the craft of parachuting.
By 1912, balloon stunts became an entertainment form of the past. Audiences demanded new tricks and more exciting shows. It was around this time that Tiny met Glenn L. Martin, a famous pilot who had seen her performing and wanted her to parachute from an airplane instead. Like Broadwick, Martin saw Tiny as a potentially highly lucrative component of his act, which focused on airplane stunts instead of hot air balloon stunts.
Broadwick had developed the parachute Tiny used on her first jump from an airplane. It was made entirely of silk. Martin flew the plane two thousand feet over Los Angeles, and then Tiny released a lever on a trap seat, sort of like a trapeze swing, behind the wing, and the seat dropped out from under her. On June 21, 1913, she became the first woman to parachute from an airplane. Later that year, she parachuted into Lake Michigan and became the first woman to parachute into a body of water.
She got enormous success from this stunt, so much so that in 1914 she was asked to demonstrate to government officials the effectiveness of parachutes. Before Tiny taught the U.S. Army her methods, many, many pilots had died because they had no way to safely get out of planes, especially in the midst of the still-brewing World War. However, in one of her demonstrations, something went terribly wrong: her parachute’s line became entangled in the tail assembly of the plane. It was impossible to get back into the plane because of the force of the wind against her small weight. Instead of becoming flustered, she cut off all but a short length of her parachute’s line, opening the parachute. Totally by accident, Tiny had invented a method called the “rip cord,” and became the first person ever to make a planned free-fall descent. Tiny accomplished that day what trained pilots had been unable to do before, that is, safely bail out of an airplane, entirely by mistake. Because of her extreme skill, Tiny served as an advisor to the Army Air Corps for the rest of World War I.
Tiny’s last jump was in 1922. She had made more than a thousand jumps by her twenty-ninth birthday, but her ankles were starting to weaken. The idea of stopping parachuting distressed her, but her health problems became too uncomfortable. Despite this, Tiny remained a fixture in aviation, visiting military bases during World War II and talking to aircrews. Verla also succeeded, but as a mother, providing Tiny with six grandchildren. She died in 1978 from natural causes and was buried in North Carolina, the state that declares itself “First in Flight,” the state where she first began.
In 1964, Tiny donated her parachute at a dinner held in her honor by the Adventurers Club of Los Angeles. National Air Museum Director Philip S. Hopkins said of Tiny’s life and accomplishments, “Measured in feet and inches, her nickname ‘Tiny’ is obviously appropriate. Measured by her courage and her accomplishments, she stands tall among her many colleagues—the pioneers of flight. And her contributions to flight history have helped to make America stand tall as the nation which gave wings to the world.”