Funmilayo Ransome Kuti was a Nigerian teacher, feminist and political leader who was the leading advocate of women’s rights in her country during the first half of the 20th century.
Ransome-Kuti was born Frances Abigail Olufunmilayo Thomas in 1900 in Abeokuta, Egbaland (now Nigeria). She became the first female student at the Abeokuta Grammar School, after which she briefly taught at the school. In 1919, she travelled to England where she continued her education at the Wincham Hall School for Girls, Cheshire, England. While in England, she dropped her English names and shortened her Yoruba name to Funmilayo. In 1922, she returned to Abeokuta to teach, and in 1925 married Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, an Anglican clergyman and teacher. He would go on to become one of the founders of both the Nigeria Union of Teachers and the Nigerian Union of Students. Both Ransome-Kuti and her husband were founder members of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, an organisation set up to represent their feelings against the British administrators.
In 1932, Ransome-Kuti’s husband became the principal of the Abeokuta school and she set about organising the Abeokuta Ladies Club (ALC). The ALC began as a civil and charitable group of mostly Western-educated Christian women. In 1944 the ALC began admitting market women who were often impoverished, illiterate, and exploited by colonial authorities. Their stories of injustice led the organisation towards a more feminist and political agenda. In 1946, in response to it’s change in function, the ALC became the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU). The AWU admitted all women, and was committed to defending women’s political, social and economic rights. Over 100,000 Abeokuta women joined the organisation, which set out to fight for better educational opportunities for women and girls, the enforcement of sanitary regulations, and the provision of health care and other social services for women. Ransome-Kuti was pushing to raise the living standards of women, with the ideal end goal being to eliminate the causes of poverty.
The AWU initially focused on campaigning against price controls, a way in which the income of market women’s incomes were limited, and against the unfair treatment of market women by the government. In 1947, Ransome-Kuti travelled to England to give a number of talks as part of a NCNC delegation. She spoke about the conditions women in Nigeria lived in, and argued that under colonial rule women lost more than men. She stated that women had lost their traditional economic and political power and this, coupled with the fact that Sir Ladapo Ademola II, the Alake of Abeokuta had introduced a special tax on women left them hugely disadvantaged. On her return to Abeokuta, the Lagos Market Women’s Association and the Abeokuta Women’s Union were hugely supportive of her comments. Ransome-Kuti led huge protests against Native Authorities (a former administrative division active during Colonial Nigeria) and Ademola. She also presented documents which proved Ademola’s abuse of authority and he was forced to temporarily abdicate in 1949. Ransome-Kuti was also successful in abolishing of separate tax rates for women. That same year, the organisation renamed itself again, becoming the Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU) to reflect the fact it had become a national organisation.
In 1951, Ransome-Kuti was the only female candidate running for a seat in the regional assembly as a candidate of the NCNC, she was unsuccessful in her bid. In 1953, the NWU became the Federation of Nigerian Women Societies (FNWS) and formed an alliance with the Women’s International Democratic Federation. Ransome-Kuti was appointed vice president of the organisation, and lectured in many countries on the conditions Nigerian women lived in. In 1959, she attempted to run as a candidate for the NCNC for a second time, but the NCNC rejected her bid. Undeterred, she ran as an independent but her candidacy split the vote and allowed the opposing party to win. The NCNC expelled her, and her political influence in Nigeria declined. Ransome-Kuti continued her political activism, and in the 1950s she was one of the few women elected to the house of chiefs, serving as an Oloye of the Yoruba people.
For the next 30 years, Ransome-Kuti attempted to build and run a series of schools with and without support from local and national government. She also ran workshops for illiterate market women and continued to fight against taxes and price controls. In the early 1970’s Ransome-Kuti changed her surname to Anikulapo-Kuti to strengthen her links to Yoruba culture, following the example of her son, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, known as Fela. Fela wrote music and lyrics which were highly critical of Nigerian governments and celebrated traditional African culture. One of the properties that Ransome-Kuti’s family owned was 14 Agege Motor Road, better known as Kalakuta Republic, a commune run by her son. In 1977, Kalakuta Republic was surrounded by a thousand armed soldiers armed with bayonets and clubs. They destroyed property and stripped women naked. Ransome-Kuti was pulled by her hair and thrown out of a second story window, causing her to go into shock. In April 1978, she died as a result of her injuries.
Ransome-Kuti was responsible for one of the most important women’s movements of the 20th century. She was a pioneering nationalist who fought tirelessly against British colonialism, and was one of the delegates who negotiated Nigeria’s independence with the British government. She was a hugely influential African feminist and human rights activist and campaigned successfully to bring education and social, political and economic equality to Nigerian women. She was also the first woman in Nigeria to drive a car.