One of the most important women in African politics in the first half of the twentieth century was Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who was from the Yoruba people who had traditional structures which allowed women to be involved in decision-making and administration.
Funmilayo was born in 1900 to parents who were Christian, English-speaking trading agents for British merchants. Her parents believed, unusually for the time, that girls should be educated as well as boys so Funmilayo went to school where she showed academic promise. With the help of family and friends, at the age of nineteen she was sent to England to continue her education. She boarded with a British family and stayed for three years, returning to Nigeria in 1923 when she became a teacher in her home region of Abeokuta.
Two years later she married the Rev Israel Ransome-Kuti, a grammar school headmaster. While Funmilayo was abroad her future husband had become, at twenty-seven, the youngest high school principal in Nigeria. Funmilayo described him as ‘the most democratic man I have ever known’ in a remark showing how democracy was equated with decency for her.
Funmilayo and her husband were both founder members of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, set up in 1944 to represent native feeling against the British administrators; it grew out of student protests against the colonial government’s educational policies. Funmilayo formed a ‘Ladies Club’ of women who were, like her, western-educated, Christian and middle class; they concentrated on cultural and community-related projects. They saw their objectives in terms of Anglo-Saxon feminist movements: the right to vote and run for office.
In early 1944 Funmilayo was asked by a market woman to teach her to read; seeing the demand for education, she expanded the Ladies’ Club to include these women who had nothing in common with the earlier members: they were poor, uneducated and not Christian. They were also able to educate Funmilayo; they radicalised her with their stories of injustice and ill-treatment at the hands of Alake, the local king whose role had been incorporated into the colonial hierarchy. Market women were subject to administrative control over what they could sell, and to frequent seizure without compensation of their goods, or forced sale at lower than the market price. The underlying impetus for this harassment was a gender-based objective: to have women stay at home and renounce the economic and social privileges they had previously enjoyed.
Funmilayo took the women’s protests to the district officer, the Native Administrative Council and to the press, achieving considerable success – the confiscation of rice stopped forthwith. She decided to abandon western clothing and instead wear traditional Yoruba dress. The women’s demands expanded to include not merely the negative resistance to oppression, but positive benefits such as the establishment of health clinics, a safe water supply and adult literacy.
The Women’s Club became the Abeokuta Women’s Union in March 1946, its new name indicating its more political purpose, and membership rose dramatically. Its membership cards were signed by Ransome-Kuti under the title Iya Egbe, ‘Mother of the Society.’ She was virtually worshipped by the market women, and she was accused by western-educated women of having an autocratic leadership style.
Throughout the 1940s Funmilayo led the women in battles against the king, Alake, and the British authorities who usually supported him. She led up to 10,000 women in protest at unfair taxes in disciplined demonstrations that they called ‘picnics’ or ‘festivals’ as they could not obtain the necessary permit to hold demonstrations.
In one protest that became legendary in Nigeria, Funmilayo led a delegation of women to the District Officer, a young British man. He rudely told her to shut the women up and she stood up to him and answered him, ‘You may have been born, you were not bred. Could you speak to your mother like that?’ There are different versions of this exchange but they agree that Funmilayo, a woman, fearlessly upbraided a British official in public.
In another demonstration the women shamed the king’s bodyguard, the Ogboni, and Funmilayo seized the sacred phallic oro stick which used to be waved to demonstrate mystical control. The women camped out in a long demonstration outside the palace while leaders negotiated with a new District Officer. At the end of each meeting they returned to the demonstration which called curses on the head of their king. The weight of tradition called for a traditional curse: ‘Alake for a long time you have used your penis as a mark of authority that you are our husband. Today we shall reverse the order and use our vaginas to play the role of husband on you…O you man, vagina’s head will seek vengeance.’
Funmilayo went to jail for refusing to pay her taxes. She was credited with being the primary force behind the abdication of the king on 3 January 1949. Funmilayo’s protests were therefore against the British colonial administration, against the British-backed Nigerian administration, and against the traditional village power of men (who should not have been interfering in the women-dominated business of market regulation). She was involved in anti-colonialist agitation, but it was part of a wider rebellion. Funmilayo and the Abeokuta Women’s Union began to articulate not only an anti-colonial position, but one that sought democracy in Nigeria and the establishment women’s equality, particularly in obtaining the franchise for women. She formulated the argument not on human rights principles, but economic justice: ‘Inasmuch as Egba women pay taxes, we too desire to have a voice in the spending of the taxes.’
The British were moving towards disengagement with these colonies. The National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons sent a delegation to Britain in 1947 to petition the secretary of state for the colonies, with Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti as one of seven members. She became a well known figure in the British press.
Funmilayo was the only woman candidate in the first direct federal elections in 1951, which had an all-male electorate. She denounced the corruption of the election and said, ‘Women are earnestly praying for the day when there will be universal adult suffrage so that once again they can assist the men to do things properly.’
She was subsequently to travel to the USSR, China and other communist bloc countries, which led to her passport being seized. Funmilayo left the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons over its refusal to accept her as an electoral candidate in 1959, and stood (unsuccessfully) as an independent. She said, ‘Men do not want women to take part in our legislation; they want women as mere voters, ordinary election tools.’
Her political disagreements were soon subsumed by national conflicts. There was an elected president in 1963, but the federation of Nigeria was not a success and there was an army coup in 1966. The attempted secession of the Ibo area of Biafra in the east, and the national government’s use of starvation as a means of bringing the rebel region back into the federation, was a humanitarian disaster and a cause of great misery to Funmilayo. Funmilayo and her family were severe critics of the military governments that ruled Nigeria, after 1966; her grand-nephew Wole Soyinka was imprisoned for most of the Biafran war.
Nigeria’s military rulers were not generous to this founding mother of the country. Her son was the musician Fela Kuti whose songs often poked fun at the military authorities. Funmilayo lived with him in his commune called Kalakata.
On 18 February 1977 Kalakuta was surrounded by soldiers armed with bayonets and clubs. Allegedly calling to arrest two young men who had committed a traffic violation, they broke down the door and began beating people. Fela and another son of Funmilayo’s were badly beaten; clothes were torn off the young women in the house who were forced outside naked. The seventy-six-year-old Funmilayo was pulled by the hair and thrown out of a window, badly injuring a foot. The property was then destroyed by fire. Funmilayo never recovered and died shortly after this.
Her body lay in state in the Ransome-Kutu School in her home town of Abeokuta where the markets and shops closed for her funeral. In recent years there has been a campaign to have her image put on the 5000 Naira note.
Find out more….
UNESCO has a great comic strip as part of their Series on Women in African History, which tells the story of parts of Funmilayo’s life and really good for sharing her story with a younger audience. You can download it here.
There is a biography of Funmilayo called For Women and the Nation: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria by Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Nina Emma Mba. (University of Illinois Press 1997)
This video gives an overview of her life with a range of photos. If you’re interested you can also find many videos of her son Fela Kuti on YouTube as well.