Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (1900–1978) was born in Abeokuta, in 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, no doubt in reaction to the racism she had encountered in Britain, 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.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti 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.
1 The Yoruba, anti-colonialism and education
1.1 The ‘Yoruba’
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (1900-1978), a leading activist during Nigerian women’s anti-colonial struggles, belonged to the Egba subgroup of the Yoruba people1. The people now collectively known as the Yoruba trace their origin to the sacred city of Ile-Ife, where, according to myth, the human race was created. The word ‘Yoruba‘ perhaps of Hausa derivation, used to refer to the large Oyo subgroup, which existed alongside many other subgroups across modern-day Nigeria, Benin, Ghana and Togo. Although these subgroups shared a common language, there was astonishing variety in their political organization and local traditions. At the end of the nineteenth century, several factors combined to provide these different groups with a more coherent, overarching ‘Yoruba’ identity, to complement their local identities.
These factors included:
– The emergence of a standard orthography, to synthesize the many different spoken dialects to writing. This was inseparable from the proselytising activities of European and local Yoruba-speaking Christian missionaries, who first established missions in Yorubaland in the 1840s;
– The return of ex-slaves from the Americas, and from the freed slaves’ colonies of Sierra Leone and Liberia, with a broader cultural identity and a wider sense of community;
– The emergence of Western-educated elite, who reacted against the racism of the British colonial administration, particularly acute from the 1890s onwards, by insisting upon the value and unity of local languages, arts and cultural practices;
The consolidation of Yorubaland’s dynamic press, which gave strength to the idea of a single community that transcended local differences.
1.2 The Berlin Conference, British imperialism and Nigeria
At the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, European powers such as Great Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal and Germany, established a treaty governing their acquisition of African territory. One of the treaty’s articles tied all signatories’ territorial claims to the establishment of regional authority, which was impossible to achieve and maintain without a military and administrative presence, however slight. This triggered the ‘Scramble for Africa’, in which European powers competed with each other to annex as much African territory as they could.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the British had brought various formerly independent states within what is modern day Nigeria under their control, despite widespread, varied and often sustained resistance. Typically, defeated peoples and states were integrated into expanding protectorates. In 1914, the Northern and Southern Protectorates were amalgamated for economic reasons to form a single but vast, diverse unit, named the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. Across the south, as the 1920s drew to a close, resistance to British colonial rule in its many different forms began to resonate beyond strictly local concerns, to take on regional and national dimensions.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti’s family and names Frances Abigail Olufunmilayo Thomas’ family history is representative of these shifting horizons. Her paternal great-grandmother was a returnee slave from Sierra Leone, who would trace her home back to Egbaland; her paternal grandfather was one of the first Christians in his local community; and her parents were Christian-schooled but remained deeply attached to Yoruba cultural practices, and as such lived as brokers between European and African cultures. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was one of the first girls to be educated at Abeokuta Grammar School (where she would also teach), before continuing her studies in England. By the time of her return to Nigeria in 1922, she had dropped her Christian names, no doubt due to her contact with racism during her studies abroad. On marrying Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti in 1925, she became Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. The names she juggled throughout her life would attest to her lasting commitment to Yoruba culture: Mrs. Kuti, iyalode (market women’s administrative head, and representative on the council), Béère, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. She also insisted that her pupils use their African, rather than European names.
1.4 Education and educators
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti belonged to a generation of educators working at a time when local issues were beginning to take on wider regional and national dimensions. In collaboration with her husband, Reverend ‘Daodu’ Ransome-Kuti, she became associated with key educational and anti-colonialist organizations. Each organization, in its own way, fought to improve the quality of state education, to abolish colonial racial discrimination, and to unite Nigerians, and Africans, across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Through her experience in education, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was able to develop her skills in connecting political issues at local, regional and national levels. Central to her activism was the struggle for greater educational opportunities for girls, and the defence of women’s rights.
2. Gender-differentiated taxes, colonialism and revolt
2.1 Indirect rule (rule through indigenous, rather than British, institutions)
With the extension of the system of ‘indirect rule’ across southern Nigeria from 1914, women were affected in two ways: they were subject to separate direct taxation (Benin, 1914; Oyo, 1916; Abeokuta, 1918; parts of the southeast from 1926 onwards), often at flat-rates, as the British sought to raise money from the colonized peoples; and they were steadily excluded from political institutions. For although British indirect rule claimed to protect and maintain pre-existing political and judicial systems, it often altered them radically, concentrating power in the hands of select individuals, invariably men. These individuals were ultimately answerable to the colonial administration. This concentration of power in a single figure risked leaving women without forms of political representation and decision-making once open to them.
2.2 The ‘Women’s War’
The ‘Women’s War’ of November and December 1929, which swept across Owerri and Calabar in the southeast, was triggered by the imminent threat of direct taxation on women. British colonialists labelled the war the ‘Aba riots’, a term that failed to recognize the strategically executed nature of the revolt, which was aimed at redressing social, economic and political injustices. In the face of fierce repression, market women successfully organized attacks on colonial buildings and property, eventually forcing a change in the indirect rule system of the eastern region. Approximately fifty-five women lost their lives. The revolt eventually resulted in the abolition of the warrant chief system6 of indirect rule in south-eastern Nigeria. This was the first women’s struggle to resonate with the common concerns of ordinary Nigerian women beyond the local context, and marked a turning point in the political organization of Nigerian women.
2.3 The role of Yoruba women, trade and the Lagos Market Women’s Association
Yoruba women were predominantly traders, rather than farmers, and possessed a long, recognizable tradition of organization and co-operation, particularly in the price-setting of market goods. Some women in the southwest were able to capitalize on new trading opportunities in the developing colonial economy, as a decline in food production, caused by the growth of the cocoa market and rapid urbanization, led to a greater demand for imported foodstuffs. Nonetheless, many Yoruba market women would still face considerable challenges. In 1920s Lagos, colonial policies such as external price controls and direct taxation triggered the creation of the Lagos Market Women’s Association (LMWA), ably led by Madam Alimotu Pelewura. In the 1930s and 1940s, the LMWA had some success in overturning oppressive colonial laws, such as the separate income tax on Lagosian women. Although the LMWA did not enjoy national resonance, it made an important step towards adapting previous forms of organization to the new political systems.
3 Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and the Abeokuta Women’s Union
3.1 Seizing the moment Abeokuta possessed a long tradition of political independence, and had a significant history of women’s leadership. The formidable nineteenth-century figure Madam Tinubu – trader, kingmaker, anti-colonialist, iyalode (women’s chieftaincy title) and celebrated defender of Abeokuta – held a strong place in the imagination of many Yoruba women and in certain ways provided a powerful model for Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. After the death of Tinubu’s successor, iyalode Miniya Jojolola (c.1928), who had been a wealthy trader, women’s political representation in the new order of things seemed to have declined into naught, and the women’s chieftancy title system seemed little but an empty shell.
3.2 The birth of a movement Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti’s Abeokuta Ladies’ Club, later renamed the Abeokuta or Egba Women’s Union (AWU), was grounded in local political practice, but was also adaptable to the requirements of the new, national politics. Although it began as a rather elite club whose principal concerns – handicraft, charity, motherhood and social etiquette – were not conducive to mass political organization, the ALC quickly realized that no women’s movement could succeed without the full participation of the majority, the market women.
3.3 The movement grows Consequently, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti began to address market women – literate or not – learning from them, and integrating them into the organization’s membership and leadership. An active policy of inclusion extended to language and appearance: Yoruba became the main language of communication, and Yoruba forms of dress, rather than European, became the rule. The organization was fully accountable and possessed its own detailed constitution. The Abeokuta Women’s Union came to have an estimated membership of 20,000 women, and its influence extended to many parts of Nigeria.
3.4 Objectives Under Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the AWU constantly tried to unite women’s struggles across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Its stated objectives were:
– To protect and preserve the rights of women in Egbaland;
– To encourage mass education among all women members through literacy classes;
– To draw together women of all classes and cultural backgrounds;
– To support any organization fighting for the economic and political independence of the Nigerian people, or of any oppressed group of people.
4.1 The market as a battleground
Britain’s involvement in the Second World War (1939-45) had severe economic effects across its colonies, transforming what many had considered to be a remote conflict into an immediate reality. Market women across western Nigeria suddenly had to struggle against food quotas and price controls on their goods, an area they had historically controlled. Their goods were also exposed to indiscriminate confiscations, as certain local Native Authority policemen abused the wider powers they had acquired under the colonial administration. In Abeokuta, women united alongside Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti to protest. Unprecedented numbers came together to demonstrate against the colonial authorities and their local representative, the Alake, who, under the British, had become the most prominent of the traditional figures of authority in the region. The press, long an important vehicle for criticizing the colonial government, swelled the women’s support. Shortly after, as a result of the organized protests, the confiscation of rice was ordered to end.
4.2 The fight for democratic representation and the abdication of an Alake
The Alake was paid by the colonial government to enforce its gender-differentiated tax laws, first introduced in Abeokuta in 1918. If women failed – or refused – to pay tax, they were often beaten, arrested or even stripped, and their houses searched.
In November 1947, a huge crowd of women (The number is often estimated at 10,000), led by Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti marched on the palace of the Alake, singing and dancing in protest against the authorities, and demanding an end to taxation without democratic representation.
The Alake was paid by the colonial government to enforce its gender differentiated tax laws, first introduced in Abeokuta in 1918. If women failed – or refused – to pay tax, they were often beaten, arrested or even stripped, and their houses searched.
In November 1947, a huge crowd of women (The number is often estimated at 10,000), led by Funmilayo RansomeKuti marched on the palace of the Alake, singing and dancing in protest against the authorities, and demanding an end to taxation without democratic representation.
The AWU organized another demonstration in December, denouncing the multiple arrests of market women, and the corruption of the colonial legal system. This time, they also demanded the abdication of the Alake.
In April 1948, a march through the streets of Abeokuta led to the suspension of direct taxation on women, and to a tentative increase in women’s political representation. On 3 January 1949, the Alake was forced to abdicate. Although later reinstated, the Alake would never receive the support of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti.
4.3 National and international expansion
Under Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the AWU, later renamed the Nigerian Women’s Union (1949) became a model organization for the struggle for women’s rights across Nigeria. It opened branches in Calabar, Aba, Benin, Lagos, Ibadan and Enugu, and even reached Kano in the north.
Its importance lay in drawing women together across linguistic and cultural differences, in efficient organization, and in insisting upon shared struggles and a shared humanity, at a time when national politics was collapsing into ethnic division. It also became a model for women’s organizations in West Africa (Ghana and Sierra Leone), Asia (China) and Europe (the Soviet Union).
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti’s resolute opposition to the ethnic politics of division spawned by colonialism led her to work with the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), a political party in which she occupied several positions. She was the only woman who travelled to the United Kingdom as part of an NCNC delegation to protest against the proposals of the Richards Constitution of 1946. These proposals, such as the creation of three regional councils for North, East and West, had not been subjected to open debate in Nigeria. And yet she never allowed her involvement in the NCNC to compromise her own voice, nor her commitment to women’s rights. She would go on to found the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies, and the Commoner’s Party.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was named Member of the Order of the Niger by the Nigerian government for her contribution to the nation (1965). She was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria’s premier university (1968), and the Lenin Peace Prize (1970), ‘in recognition of [her] noble activities for many years in promoting friendship and mutual co-operation between Nigerian and Soviet peoples.
– Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti Biography and Profile (UNESCO)