She was born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie in Troits-Ilets, Martinique.
In 1779 she married a French army officer, Alexandre, Vicomte de Beauharnais; he was guillotined during the Reign of Terror in 1794. With him she had a son, Eugène de Beauharnais (1781-1824), and a daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais (1783-1837). By her son's daughter, Josephine of Leuchtenberg, wife of King Oscar I of Sweden, she is a direct ancestress of the present royal houses of Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Greece, Norway, Luxembourg, and Liechtenstein.
As a widow, Joséphine de Beauharnais was mistress to several leading political figures. She met General Napoleon Bonaparte and married him in 1796. Joséphine is said to have had regular affairs with other men, which almost led her to a divorce in 1799.
She became Empress of France in 1804 when Napoléon was crowned at Notre-Dame.
When it appeared she was unable to give him any children, she agreed to be divorced so he could remarry in the hopes of having an heir to succeed him. The divorce (January 10, 1810), was the first under the Napoleonic Code. After their divorce, she lived at the Chateau de Malmaison, near Paris. When she died in 1814 she was buried not far from there, at the St. Pierre and St. Paul church in Rueil. Her daughter Hortense is interred near her.