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Josephine Baker’s Infertility Journey

An overview of Josephine Baker's infertility journey, and how the Rainbow Tribe came to exist

September 11, 2020
Miriam Reid

Josephine Baker, born June 3rd, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, was a widely acclaimed American-born French entertainer. She grew up in poverty, working menial jobs from a young age for wealthy white families who frequently mistreated her, before finally discovering her passion and talent for dancing. By the start of the 1920s, she was already well on her way to being the famous performer she was destined to be, as well as the pioneer in a fight against racism. Among numerous entertainment appearances, Josephine Baker is also well known for her “Rainbow Tribe” - the 12 children she adopted from across the world.

Jo of All Trades

Josephine Baker was a woman who did it all

Three pictures of Josephine Baker, first in her famous banana skirt, next in an outfit involving a headwrap and pearl necklace, and finally in a silk or satin dress with a cheetah
Josephine Baker: the woman who did it all. Image courtesy of The People Alchemist.

Before we get into Josephine Baker’s infertility journey, it may be prudent to review the sheer number of things this woman accomplished throughout her life. Over the course of her career, Baker worked as a vedette, an actress, a dancer, a singer, a civil rights activist, and a French resistance officer.

Josephine Baker began dancing in her early teens at the start of the 1920s, meaning that her career began to flourish right alongside the Harlem Renaissance. This was around the time that she stopped going by Freda Josephine McDonald and became simply Josephine Baker, taking the surname of her then-husband. This is all to say that her image as a performer became iconic at the time, leading to her eventual move to France.

Her widespread acclaim is what led her to a prime position from which to advocate for racial equality. She once said, “You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”

Besides civil rights, her political involvement also included avid participation in the French resistance during World War II. Among other roles, she housed resistance fighters and supplied them with visas, and performed for the resistance fighters to boost morale. It was during this time as a resistance fighter that her infertility journey truly began.

Struggle With Infertility

The start of Baker's journey through infertility

Josephine Baker posing in her army uniform
Josephine Baker had the miscarriage that led to her hysterectomy while aiding the French resistance. Image courtesy of Mental Floss.

Josephine Baker did not choose to adopt because she didn’t want biological children, or chose not to become pregnant in order to preserve her dancing figure, or anything else of the sort. Rather, her adoption of the Rainbow Tribe was not only a message of coexistence meant to counter the racism she faced so routinely in the world, but was also a response to her infertility. Josephine Baker described how she “suffered a lot because [she] couldn't have children of [her] own,” and how she “felt inferior because of that.”

Baker’s problems began in earnest in the early 1940s, during the height of World War II. At the time, she was working as an entertainer boosting morale for the French Resistance in Morocco during Operation Torch. These performances were ground-breaking for the time, since the historical and political context meant that Jews and People of Color were prohibited from performing in a staggering number of venues. Josephine Baker was something of a special case, though; despite being black, she was so widely popular and loved that even the Nazis were hesitant to take any action against her. Baker was an avid member of political movements and a lifelong fighter for peace and equality, so her participation in this resistance was by no means surprising.

Around this time, in about 1941, Josephine Baker suffered a miscarriage. This alone would have been devastating enough, but the miscarriage also led to a severe infection with eventually resulted in Baker needing to have a hysterectomy. Throughout her life, Baker would undergo several surgeries, but it is safe to say that this is the one that had the largest impact on her life. Josephine Baker now knew for certain she would never be able to have biological children, but that didn’t stop her from starting a family anyway.

The Rainbow Tribe

Josephine Baker's famous band of children

Josephine Baker posing with her then-husband and nine of her children
Josephine Baker, pictured with a handful of her family members, known as The Rainbow Tribe. Image courtesy of Harvard University.

Josephine Baker’s Rainbow Tribe was presented as living proof that a multicultural, multinational family could exist in harmony. Baker crafted her family into an example of coexistence, even charging admissions for performances put on by the children, wherein the point was less the performance and more the image of diversity. But the Rainbow Tribe did not begin with a political message in mind; it began with Josephine Baker having trouble conceiving, and turning to adoption to create the family she wanted.

By the end of her life, Josephine Baker had adopted a dozen children from across the world and raised them as a (mostly) single mother in a family emblematic of unity. She treated her infertility as an opportunity to bring love and equality to as much of the world as she could manage.


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