Meet Firestarter Josephine Baker

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Meet Firestarter Josephine Baker, a badass resistance spy. Born in St. Louis in 1906, Josephine Baker moved to France at age 19. She emigrated with the hope of leaving the racism that hindered her American aspirations behind. She quickly became famous for her singing and dancing, including her beloved act where she wore only a skirt made of rubber bananas. She walked through the streets with her pet cheetah, Chiquita, who wore a diamond collar.

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In 1925, when Hitler’s brown shirt storm troopers were still considered a fringe group, Josephine performed in Berlin to thunderous applause. But when she returned just two years later — after Hitler gained prominence due to the publication of “Mein Kampf,” which referred to Black people as “half-apes” — German and Austrian newspaper headlines called her a “black devil” and a “jezebel.” The mobs outside her performances made her fear for her life.

In 1939, when France declared war on Germany, Josephine was recruited by France’s military intelligence agency to provide intel under the cover of her career as a performer. Despite the risks to her personal safety, Josephine used her talents as an entertainer and celebrity to help defeat the Nazis.

She socialized with Germans at embassies, ministries and night clubs with the goal of charming them while secretly gathering information on their war activities. Josephine wrote intel notes in invisible ink on her sheet music and pinned them inside her underwear. During her travels, she ferried missives, photos and documents helpful to the allies, and met with resistance sympathizers. And Josephine’s French country home became a base of operations for the the resistance and refugees; a radio transmitter was installed on one of its towers to allow contact with Britain, and her cellar was filled with weapons.

Meet Firestarter Josephine Baker, a badass resistance spy
Meet Firestarter Josephine Baker, a badass resistance spy

After the war, Josephine returned again to Germany in 1945. This time, she was there to honor at the Allied Victory ceremony at Hohenzollern Castle, the historic home of the German royal family. She took a place of honor in a country that had degraded and ridiculed her only a few years before. Then, she performed for the survivors of Buchenwald death camp who were too feeble to leave the prison. Although the camp was riddled with typhus and still littered with bodies, she found the strength to sing “In My Village,” a song about the simple pleasures of home.

Josephine Baker being honored at the Allied Victory ceremony at Hohenzollern Castle, the historic home of the German royal family
Josephine Baker being honored at the Allied Victory ceremony at Hohenzollern Castle, the historic home of the German royal family

What’s a Firestarter? To me, it’s any woman creating a commotion by disrupting things and starting things. Women who are fearless in standing up for themselves or others. Women who are provocative and innovative. They harness their power to help others, and they seek out ways to encourage other women to stand up or speak out.

In the last decade, while leading Moms Demand Action, I began using the word “Firestarters” to describe the amazing women in the world who inspire me, and I think it’s a phrase we all should add to our vocabulary. Tell me about the Firestarters who inspire you in the comments and I’ll profile them in future posts.