Madam C.J. Walker, the first documented self-made woman millionaire, will soon have a doll in her honor as part of the Barbie Signature Inspiring Women collection. She is the latest historical figure to be recognized by Mattel, the toy company that manufactures Barbie.
Walker is known for creating a successful line of hair care products and cosmetics for Black women and using the fortune she created to do significant philanthropic work. Her story inspired a Netflix original movie, Self Made, that showed her transformation from a farm laborer and laundress into one of the twentieth century’s most successful women entrepreneurs.
Walker’s great-great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, is hopeful that the doll (with its adorable mini hair products) will introduce the story of the historical figure to an expanded audience.
“It means a lot that now little girls everywhere will get to play with a Madam C.J. Walker doll and learn more about her organically,” Bundles tells ESSENCE. “The image and symbolism of this doll will carry Madam Walker’s story out into the world in another way.”
Mattel enlisted Bundles, a journalist and historian, to assist in the development of the figurine. Besides being a descendent of the hair pioneer, Bundles has also spent years studying her great-great grandmother’s legacy.
She is the author of the biography On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, founder of the Madam Walker Family Archives and brand historian for MADAM by Madam C. J. Walker, a line of hair care products developed in partnership with Sundial Brands and Walmart.
Bundles’s extensive knowledge of Walker’s story provided much of the historical context needed for the toy company to accurately depict her—with attention to even the most minor details.
“Mattel and Barbie have a very cloned science about how to develop these dolls and involve people who know about the figure,” she says. “I was glad to be a part of it and provide in-depth knowledge of Madam Walker.”
“It was important to show Madame Walker in a different light,” she adds. “She loved purple and turquoise. In the past, photos were in black and white so you couldn’t see that. So it was good that we were able to give her a bit of whimsy and use brighter colors.”
Bundles also pointed out that Walker was a former seamstress who understood fabrics and fashion.
“I like that we can put that messaging in as well,” she says. “She was fashion-forward, a philanthropist, and a patron of the arts.”
Still, it’s the story of the businesswoman, entrepreneur, and philanthropist that Walker was that inspired Barbie to create a doll in her honor.
“Madam C.J. Walker’s unflinching determination and pioneering spirit not only helped revolutionize the hair care industry of the time, but broke boundaries and opened doors for the next generation of women entering business and entrepreneurship,” read a statement on behalf of Mattel.
In the United States, 17 percent of Black women are in the process of starting or running new businesses according to a 2021 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor survey. And while the number of Black women starting businesses continues to climb, the success stories aren’t always as prevalent. So to have the legacy of Walker to look upon, even in doll form, and to pass onto the next generation, is important.
“The number of women of color starting businesses is growing and Madam Walker paved the way. I hope women can look at the doll, see themselves and be inspired even more,” Bundles says. “This doll isn’t just for little girls, it’s for big girls too.”
As mentioned, the Madam C.J. Walker doll is the latest figure in the Inspiring Women series that Mattel has paid homage to. Earlier this year, they released a doll inspired by journalist and activist Ida B. Wells. Others honored include Dr. Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, and Ella Fitzgerald.
The Madam C.J. Walker doll debuts at select retailers on Wednesday, August 24. It will also be available on the Mattel Creations website.
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