FUNMILAYO RANSOME-KUTI: The Beacon Of Feminism In Nigerian History

FUNMILAYO RANSOME-KUTI: The Beacon Of Feminism In Nigerian History

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was born in 1900 in Abeokuta, present-day Ogun State, Nigeria. She was one of the first women to attend Abeokuta Grammar School in 1914, where she would go on to teach.

In 1919 she left for Wincham Hall School for Girls, Cheshire, England, to pursue her studies. By the time of her return to Nigeria in 1922, she had dropped her Christian name, Frances Abigail.

She soon became associated with some of the most important anti-colonial educational movements in Nigeria and West Africa, and fought tirelessly to further women’s access to education and political representation

Her children Beko, Olikoye and Fela, would all go on to play important roles in education, healthcare, the arts and political activism.

In 1944, she founded the Abeokuta Ladies’ Club (later, the Abeokuta Women’s Union), committed to defending women’s political, social and economic rights, which became one of the most important women’s movements of the twentieth century.

Her unwavering commitment to cooperation, solidarity and unity led her to play an active role in politics, notably in the pre-independence constitutional negotiations of 1946.

FUNMILAYO RANSOME-KUTI: Background and early life

Frances Abigail Olufunmilayo Thomas was born on 25 October 1900 in Abeokuta, Nigeria, to Chief Daniel Olumeyuwa Thomas, a member of the aristocratic Jibolu-Taiwo family, and Lucretia Phyllis Omoyeni Adeosolu (1874–1956).

Her father was a farmer and traded palm produce, while her mother worked as a dressmaker. On her father’s side, Frances was descended from Sarah Taiwo, a Yoruba woman who had been captured by slave traders in the early 19th century before eventually returning home to her family in Abeokuta.

Though a widely uncommon practice in Nigeria in her days, her parents decided to invest in a formal education for their daughter. She attended Abeokuta Grammar School for her secondary education. 

The school had initially been open only to male students, but it admitted its first female students in 1914, and Frances was first among the six girls registered for study that year.

From 1919 to 1922, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti went abroad and attended a finishing school for girls in CheshireEngland, where she learned elocution, music, dressmaking, French, and various domestic skills.

It was there that she made the permanent decision to use her shortened Yoruba name, Funmilayo, instead of her Christian name Frances, presumably as a result of personal experiences of racism in England.

She would later return to Abeokuta to work as a teacher.

FUNMILAYO RANSOME KUTI: Marriage, and family

On 20 January 1925, Funmilayo married Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, a member of the Ransome-Kuti family. Israel had studied at the Abeokuta Grammar School several years ahead of Funmilayo, and while she was still in school the two had developed a friendship followed by a courtship. 

Family photo of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti with her husband, and children.

Israel found work as a school principal, and he strongly believed in bringing people together and overcoming ethnic and regional divisions. He later became a co-founder of both the Nigeria Union of Teachers and of the Nigerian Union of Students. His marriage with Funmilayo would last 30 years – until Israel’s death – and was marked by a sense of equality and deep mutual respect between the couple.

After marriage, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti stopped being a teacher, but she soon found other commitments. In 1928 she established one of the first preschool classes in Nigeria. Around the same time, she started a club for young women of elite families to encourage their “self-improvement”, while also organizing classes for illiterate women.

Between 1935 and 1936, Israel and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti arranged to purchase a secondhand car which was shipped to them from England. By virtue of this, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti became the first woman in Abeokuta to drive a car.

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and her husband had four children: a daughter named Dolupo and sons named  Olikoye , Olufela “Fela” , and Bekolari “Beko”.

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti’s Activism and Nationalism

In 1932, Ransome-Kuti had helped establish the Abeokuta Ladies Club which focused on charity work, sewing, catering and adult education classes, and its early members were mostly Christian, Western-educated women from the middle class.

By the 1940s, however, the club was moving in a more political direction. Inspired by an illiterate friend who asked her for help learning how to read, Ransome-Kuti began organizing literacy workshops for market women through the club, and she subsequently gained a greater understanding of social and political inequalities faced by many Nigerian women.

Writing about the privileges of her background, Ransome-Kuti noted that

“the true position of Nigerian women had to be judged from the women who carried babies on their backs and farmed from sunrise to sunset … not women who used tea, sugar, and flour for breakfast”.

In 1944 she developed a successful campaign to stop local authorities seizing rice from market women under false pretenses.

In 1946 the club was formally renamed the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU), and as such, became open to all women in Abeokuta. The organization then turned its focus to fighting unfair price controls and taxes imposed on market women, with Ransome-Kuti as the AWU’s president.

She had founded the union along with Grace Eniola Soyinka (her husband’s niece and the mother of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka), and the AWU gradually grew to represent 20,000 official members, with up to 100,000 additional supporters.

In an effort to unify women and avoid class conflict, Ransome-Kuti and other formally educated members spoke Yoruba and wore traditional Yoruba clothing to union meetings and events.

Ransome-Kuti’s first well-known political activity came when she led the AWU in a protest against a tax on women. In Abeokuta, alongside regular taxes for income and water usage, market women were also forced to pay a special tax that went directly to market supervisors or “parakoyis”.

The Alake Ademola II, a local traditional ruler of Abeokuta who now became part of the colonial administration via indirect rule, had imposed taxes on women after the Egba Native Administration had been established in 1914. Following an unsuccessful appeal to British authorities to remove the current Alake from power and halt the tax, Ransome-Kuti and the AWU began contacting newspapers and circulating petitions.

Aiming to put more pressure on authorities, AWU members publicly refused to pay their taxes, staged long vigils outside the Alake’s palace, and arranged an audit of the Sole Native Authority System (SNA) finance records. Along with their objective of ending the tax on women, they demanded representation for women on the SNA’s executive council.

By late 1947, Abeokuta authorities began forbidding women from organizing parades or demonstrations, denying them the necessary permits. Undeterred, Ransome-Kuti and her fellow organisers declared that they were planning “picnics” and “festivals” instead, drawing up to 10,000 participants to their demonstrations – some of which involved altercations with police.

Ransome-Kuti trained women in how to deal with the tear gas canisters sometimes thrown at them, and the AWU used its membership dues to fund legal representation for arrested members.

The West African Pilot described her as the “Lioness of Lisabi”.

Tensions between AWU protesters and authorities came to a head in February 1948 when the Alake compared AWU women to “vipers that could not be tamed” and banned Ransome-Kuti from entering the palace for political meetings.

Immediately afterwards, AWU members blocked the palace entrance and refused to let the visiting British district officer leave. The incident concluded with a scuffle when Ransome-Kuti grabbed hold of the steering wheel of the district officer’s car and refused to let go “until he pried her hand loose”. 

Throughout early 1948, AWU members continued to protest the tax, fighting with petitions, press conferences, letters to newspapers, and demonstrations. After more demonstrations in late April of that year, the Alake finally responded to the women’s demands, suspending the tax on women and appointing a special committee to look into the AWU’s complaints.

In early 1949, the AWU’s efforts led to the temporary abdication of the Alake. Newspapers across Nigeria published stories about the event, and Ransome-Kuti’s work with the AWU became widely publicized.

In 1947, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons party (NCNC) sent a delegation to London, England, to protest a proposed Nigerian constitution. Ransome-Kuti was the only woman in the delegation.

While in London, Ransome-Kuti gave speeches about Nigerian women’s issues at the London Women’s Parliamentary Committee, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, and other organizations.

She also caused a stir after writing an article for the Daily Worker that argued colonial rule had “severely marginalized” Nigerian women both politically and economically. When a Western Provinces conference was held in Nigeria in 1949 to discuss a new national constitution, Ransome-Kuti represented Abeokuta and was once again the only woman involved in the discussions.

She made strong arguments for the inclusion of women’s enfranchisement and against the creation of an indirect electoral system.

In May 1949, Ransome-Kuti proposed the creation of the Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU) in order to better support women’s rights and enfranchisement across the country.

The AWU supported her proposal, and the organization subsequently became the Abeokuta branch of the NWU. Over the next several years, Ransome-Kuti travelled widely to help set up NWU branches in towns and cities all over Nigeria.

She served as president of both the NWU and her hometown union in Abeokuta. The NWU pursued goals of achieving women’s suffrage, dismantling electoral colleges, and supporting a more balanced representation of women in politics.

In 1953, Ransome-Kuti organized a conference in Abeokuta to discuss women’s suffrage and political representation, and 400 women delegates attended the two-day event.

The participants subsequently formed the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies (FNWS). The FNWS campaigned for women’s political inclusion, improved educational opportunities, and the creation of new social services and healthcare.

During the early 1950s, Ransome-Kuti was appointed to the Western House of Chiefs and granted the chieftaincy title of “Oloye” of the Yoruba people.

She was the first woman appointed to the Western House and one of the few women to have a position in any Nigerian House of Chiefs at the time. She also served as a board member for the Nigerian Union of Teachers.

After independence in 1960, Nigeria introduced universal adult suffrage for both men and women through its new constitution. The Northern Region of Nigeria, which was a primarily Muslim region, did not immediately implement voting rights for women (although women’s suffrage in the region was later granted by military decree in 1976).

Nigeria’s early years of independence became mired in political disagreements between leaders and representatives. When a 1966 military coup brought a change of power, Ransome-Kuti felt that this was a positive and necessary step forward for the country, but she condemned the violence that followed after the counter-coup that same year. 

She was actively involved with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), being president for the organization’s Nigerian branch since 1963.

In 1965, Ransome-Kuti received the national honour of membership in the Order of the Niger. The University of Ibadan bestowed an honorary doctorate of laws upon her in 1968, and she received the Lenin Peace Prize in 1970.

In 1969, Ransome-Kuti was appointed chairman of the Advisory Board of Education by the western Nigeria state government, and she served as a consultant to the Federal Ministry of Education on recruitment of teachers from other countries.

Inspired by her son Fela, who had altered his surname to reflect a discarding of colonial European influences, Ransome-Kuti informally changed her surname to “Anikulapo-Kuti” during the early 1970s.

The name “Anikulapo” is a Yoruba word and can be translated to mean “hunter who carries death in a pouch” or “warrior who carries strong protection”.

LATER LIFE, AND DEATH

In the later years of Ransome-Kuti’s life, her son Fela, a musician and activist, became known for his vocal criticisms of Nigerian military governments.

Fela had been arrested and briefly imprisoned during the early 1970s, and authorities had raided his home and properties several times. To show his disdain for the Federation of Nigeria’s authority, he named his home property “the Kalakuta Republic” and transformed it into a commune where friends and supporters could gather and spend time without fear of the military authorities. 

In November 1974, Nigerian police raided his nightclub in town with axes and tear gas, leaving Fela with injuries. In 1976, Fela released an album called Zombie, in which he compared the army to mindless machines, and many believe that this album acted as a final straw in the conflict between Fela and the government.

Ransome-Kuti often visited her son at his compound, it was on one of those visits on the 18th of February 1977, that about 1,000 armed soldiers surrounded and stormed the property.

Photo of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti with her son, Fela, and some of her grandchildren.

As soon as the soldiers broke inside, they began destroying property and assaulting the residents. Fela and Bekolari were beaten and severely injured. Mrs. Ransome-Kuti was thrown from a second-floor window. 

Following the attack, she was hospitalized and eventually lapsed into a coma. She died on 13 April 1978 as a result of her injuries.

Ransome-Kuti’s remains were interred in Abeokuta in the same vault as her husband. Her funeral services were attended by thousands, and many market women and traders shut down shops and markets across the city to mark her death. 

Major Nigerian news outlets published eulogies, naming the activist “a progressive revolutionary” and “a Pan-African visionary”.

On the one-year anniversary of Ransome-Kuti’s death, Fela took a coffin and travelled nearly 20 kilometres to Dodan Barracks in Lagos (then Nigeria’s Supreme Military Headquarters), leaving the coffin at the gate in an attempt to shame the government. The invasion, her death, and the movement of the coffin is detailed in his song “Coffin for Head of State”.

It is an understatement to say that Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was an epitome of greatness, and fervor even in the face of adversity. She embodied leadership immeasurably and her life, her works, and legacy, are directly or indirectly, the foundation upon which other great legacies have been established.

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti will always be remembered for her awe-inspiring exploits and indomitable spirit.

By Oluwamayowa Akinyemi

Oluwamayowa Akinyemi

Oluwamayowa Akinyemi is a digital and web content developer with experience in web content development and management as well as research and writing. He is an avid reader of random subject matters and a sucker for movies and video games. He is also passionate about youth empowerment and is a global affairs analyst and enthusiast.

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