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French Women & Feminists in History: A Resource Guide

Joséphine Baker

Carl Van Vechten, photographer. Portrait of Josephine Baker, Paris. 1949. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Born in Saint Louis, Missouri, Josephine Baker (1906-1975) would go on to become one of the first African-American women celebrities in France and in Europe more broadly in the 1920s, gaining notoriety for her beauty and innovative performance style but also for her contributions to the French Resistance movement.

After a tumultuous early life, Josephine began performing with a travelling African American theater group at the age of 15. She married at this time and continued to perform in Vaudeville shows, eventually securing a place on the chorus line of an off-Broadway show in New York City, using humor in her routines to draw attention to her performance and becoming a well-known performer in New York’s Black art scene, now known as the Harlem Renaissance. Divorced in 1925, Baker travelled to Paris, where her success skyrocketed due to her unique performance and costume styles, most notably her banana dress in Danse Sauvage. Baker was multitalented and was able to capitalize on the sensationalism of African and non-Western cultures which was growing in popularity in France in the 1920s. Becoming friends with Paris-based artists, endorsing French products to her loving fan base and appearing in popular European films, Baker became a uniquely French celebrity in that her success was recognized nearly exclusively in France and Europe and never reached an equivalent level in the United States.

At the outbreak of World War II and the Nazi occupation of France, Baker became a member of the French Resistance movement. Performing for and socializing with members of the German military, Baker used her celebrity to gain confidential information about Nazi strategy and passed this back to the Deuxième Bureau, the French counterintelligence unit. Additionally, her status as a travelling performer provided cover for her travel to the United Kingdom, where she carried notes about German military operations written in invisible ink on her sheet music to the British authorities. After the war, she returned to global stages with bolstered success. Although she remained in France, Baker was an outspoken activist in the American Civil Rights Movement, often refusing to perform in segregated venues and appearing at demonstrations in Washington, most notably alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington. Though some American activists criticized her involvement in the movement, arguing that her lifetime in France had made her disconnected from the contemporary political issues in the United States, Baker argued that her social status in France and experience of relative racial equality in Europe had made her even more aware of and engaged with the fight for equal rights. Josephine Baker continued to be an outspoken advocate for civil rights in appearances around the world up until her death in 1975.

For digitized sources on women of this time period see Digitized Sources:Feminism in the 20th Century.

You can identify additional material by searching the Library of Congress Online Catalog using the following headings:

Baker, Josephine, 1906-1975

Print & Digital Resources

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