Female Badasses in History: Josephine Baker (1906-1975)
Josephine Baker’s accomplishments are almost too numerous to list them all: The American-French singer, dancer, and actress was the first African-American woman to star in a major motion picture, to integrate an American concert hall, and to become the first world-famous entertainer. She also was a member of the French resistance against the Germans and a political icon of the civil rights movement in the US, going so far that after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. his widow, Coretta Scott King (who will get her own entry) offered Josephine Baker the unofficial leadership of the movement.
Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri, into a family of French, African-American, Native-American, and Jewish decent. At age 12 Baker had to drop out of school to work full-time under such ghastly conditions that she chose to rather be homeless. For three years she lived in the slums of St. Louis earning money by dancing on street corners. Apparently her talent was noticed and she joined a vaudeville troop, which ultimately brought her to New York during the height of the so-called Harlem Renaissance. In New York her career started to take off and Baker started performing on Broadway as a dancer and singer. Her dancing and singing was noticed by talent agents of the time and lead to her being invited to France to open at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1925. There she started an erotic one-woman show that soon became world-famous. She toured Western Europe with her show and was a success in every country.
Baker was the most successful American entertainer outside of the USA in the 1920s and early 30s. She took roles in European movies and also in 1934 starred in an Offenbach opera performed at the most prestigious opera house in Paris. Contemporary artists and celebrities like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, Pablo Picasso, and Christian Dior flocked around her all attesting to her beauty and talent.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939 and German forces subsequently occupied France in 1940, Josephine Baker immediately volunteered to spy and work for the French resistance. She helped the cause of the French resistance by attending parties together with high-ranking Axis officials and through subtle interrogations disguised as gossiping she learned of important details of Axis policy in France and all of Europe, which she immediately passed on to her contacts in the resistance.
She also used her status as a celebrity to get false documents for members of the resistance and Jews who needed to flee France for fear of being deported to one of the camps. She also smuggled important information and messages from France to Morocco or Spain by hiding the messages in her underwear, again relying on her celebrity status to avoid strip searches.
When she relocated definitely to Morocco in 1942 she began to entertain French colonial troops urging them to join the forces of the Free France government in London and not serving the Vichy government that was in bed with the Germans with quite a degree of success. One of the first things she did after the war in Europe ended was to visit the freshly liberated Buchenwald concentration camp where she spontaneously put on a performance for the recently liberated former inmates there much to their enjoyment according to British and American eyewitnesses.
After the war Baker became the first American woman to receive three of the highest honors of the French state, the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de la Resistance, and being made a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur; all given to her by Charles de Gaulle personally.
In the 1950s Josephine Baker became very active in the American civil rights movement. Not only did she protest racism by adopting 12 multi-ethnic orphans as her legal children, she also forced clubs, theaters, opera houses and other cultural venues to open themselves to an integrated audience by either refusing to perform there or by simply buying the establishment and changing the audience guidelines. She also started working closely with the NAACP using her wealth and fame to bring attention and fight for their cause. This lead to her being the only official female speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. She spoke at the side of Martin Luther King Jr. wearing her Free French army uniform and her medals. Baker used this opportunity to introduce the “Negro Women for Civil Rights” and brought Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates to the stage to give brief speeches.
By 1968 Baker had become a true icon of the civil rights movement in the US and despite her still living in France at the time Coretta Scott King approached her after Martin Luther King’s assassination and offered her the unofficial leadership of the movement. After careful deliberation Josephine Baker refused, mainly because of her young children.
As for her personal life, Baker was married several times, had never any children that were not adopted due to health reasons, and according to the biography one of her sons wrote about her was bisexual, having had affairs with several women among them Frida Kahlo.
Josephine Baker died at age 68 in Paris where she was the first American woman to receive full French military honors at her funeral. She has several places in France and the US named after her and can be remembered as one of the most outstanding women of her time in show-buisness, paving the way for African-American women, an important civil-rights activist, and a fighter against racism, inequality, injustice, and the terrible German Nazi regime.