Series on Madam C.J. Walker Begs Some Important Questions About Today

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Dan Holly - Editor's Desk

There’s a scene in “Self Made,” the series that recently came out on Netflix about Madam C.J. Walker, when the madam is strolling around the grounds of her estate and runs into her next door neighbor, who happens to be John D. Rockefeller. Walker is deep in thought, troubled by an uprising among her sales agents, who are worried that a pending deal to sell her hair-care products in a drugstore chain would diminish their roles peddling the products door-to-door.

Running into a legendary business tycoon, whom she had not met up until that point, at first seems like a fortuitous occasion. She describes her predicament and asks his advice.

But Rockefeller’s answers trouble Walker even more – he tells her to treat her workers like children who don’t know what’s best for them and to ignore their demands.

I don’t know if this scene really happened (Netflix bills the series as “inspired by the life of C.J. Walker” so it could be poetic license) but I want to talk about what happened next: Walker decided to cancel the contract with the drug store chain to save her workers’ livelihoods.

The series, which debuted March 20, is quite timely, this being Women’s History Month (which a lot of people were paying attention to before the COVID 19 virus changed life as we know it). It highlights an important piece of history.

Madam C.J. Walker (aka Sarah Breedlove) is the first African-American, female, self-made millionaire. How much of the series is true, and how much is Hollywood embellishment is hard to separate, but no one disputes that she made a fortune and the she did so by being a hard-charging, bold and creative business person. As the scene with Rockefeller showed (if true), she had a tender, sympathetic side – a side that put people over profits.

When I saw the scene, it made me think of the national discussion over women and leadership. The discussion has come up in several ways – for example, when all of the women candidates for the Democratic nomination for president dropped out of the race. Many were disappointed in the American electorate; “electability” shows up at the top of just about any poll of what Democratic voters are looking for, and many apparently are making the decision that beating Donald Trump is so important that they don’t want to risk choosing a woman candidate.

The discussion also has come up as part of the analysis over how Trump has handled the response to the virus. Many of his critics say that Trump, at least at the beginning, put his re-election chances ahead of public health. Hillary Clinton, had she won, would have been more concerned with people and less concerned with personal benefit, the argument goes.

It’s impossible to say, of course, how Hillary would have handled the COVID 19 crisis; nor can we say for sure whether a woman is more likely than a man to defeat Trump. But, as Madam C.J. Walker showed, history is full of women who have leadership skills that stand out above anyone else; who were capable of rising to the very top of their profession.

A woman president might govern differently than a man, and that might not be a bad thing at all. Too bad that won’t happen in 2020, assuming the candidates are Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

C.J. Walker died in 1919. If a black woman could become a millionaire in that era, when the odds against success were prohibitive for both African Americans and women, don’t tell me there’s no woman capable of leading this country a century later. Let’s hope that happens soon.