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*Cue boxing announcer’s voice* In this corner, fighting against colonialism and the patriarchy, all the way from Abeokuta, Nigeria, give it up for Bere, the Lioness of Lisabi, women’s rights activist, Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti!
You’re probably thinking that was pretty extra for an introduction. But trust me, this woman deserves it. Ransome-Kuti is often known for being the mother of the famous Afrobeats musician and activist, Fela Anikulakpo-Kuti. But as the first Nigerian woman to drive a car, a fierce educator and women’s rights activist, Fumilayo Ransome-Kuti is a legend in her own right.
Before (and after) becoming a mother, Ransome-Kuti achieved a lot. Born in Abeokuta as Frances Abigail Olufunmilayo Thomas in 1900, she was the daughter of a chief and dressmaker. Frances’ parents believed in the power of education, so she was one of the first girls to attend Abeokuta Grammar School. Afterwards, Frances attended Wincham Hall School for Girls, a finishing school in Chesire England. When she returned, she dropped both English names and began using her shortened Yoruba name, Funmilayo.
Now a name change probably seems pretty minor, but it was the first sign of her anticolonial stance.
[Image description: Shuri, a young woman, looking up and saying “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!”] via GIPHY
Let me hit you with a bit of context real quick. During the year of Funmilayo’s birth, Abeokuta and its surrounding area formally entered Britain’s rule as the “Southern Nigeria Protectorate.” Here’s the thing: the transition to British governing systems had a big impact on gender dynamics. Before that, most Yoruba kingdoms had traditional forms of government, which included a system that had both men and women-led governing bodies. Once British rule started, those traditional forms ceased, taking with it political positions for women. The British sexist beliefs meant that women scarcely held government positions, and they brought these ideals to Abeokuta. Like Ransome-Kuti herself said during her work as a political activist, “We had equality before the British came.”
So there you have it. British rule began, and women’s leadership ended.
After her short stint in Britain, in 1925 Funmilayo married Isreal Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, a fellow educator (did somebody say #couplegoals?). They had four children: Dolupo, Olikoye, Fela, and Beko. Funmilayo quit her teaching job, but she didn’t become a stay-at-home mother. In 1932, she helped establish the Abeokuta Ladies’ Club (ALC). If you’re wondering if that’s as pretentious as it sounds, you’re correct! The club was mainly for Western-educated, middle-class women, and they mostly convened around sewing, motherhood, charity, and social etiquette. However, by the mid-1940s, after helping an illiterate friend learn to read, Funmilayo realized something:
“The true position of Nigerian women had to be judged from the women who carried babies on their back and farmed from sunrise to sunset, not women who used tea, sugar and flour for breakfast.”
As the ALC became more feminist and political, Funmilayo saw that the women’s movement could not succeed without the majority of women. So in 1944, the ALC changed its name to the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU), with Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti as its first president. Next up? A cultural glow-up. To make the union more inclusive, the union adopted Yoruba as the language of conversation and dressed in Yoruba attire.
One of the AWU’s first movements took things to the market. As a result of World War II, women were in a particularly precarious position. As a British colony, Nigeria also suffered economic consequences, and women suddenly found themselves having to contend with food quotas and price controls from the colonial administration and extortion from local authorities, who frequently confiscated their rice. So the women’s union took action, in an Instagram-live worthy showdown which Fela (her son), described, saying:
“These women went straight to see the District Officer of Abeokuta who was a young white boy. The District Officer must have said something in a disdainful voice, like: ’Go on back home.’ To which my mother exploded: ’You bastard, rude little rat…!’[–]Imagine insulting the highest motherfucking representative of the British imperial crown in Abeokuta, Ohhhhhhhh, man! I was proud.”
Mrs. Ransome-Kuti wasn’t here to play, thank you very much.
Another major accomplishment the AWU achieved under Ransome-Kuti’s presidency was in 1947, when they fought against sexist tax laws. The colonial government paid the Alake (traditional leader) of Abeokuta to enforce a tax that charged women more than men. Sadly for him, the AWU was having none of it.
In November 1947, Ransome-Kuti led thousands of women to the Alake’s palace, singing and dancing in protest. They demanded an end to the taxation, and also used petitions and letters to argue their case. Tensions continued to escalate until 1948, when the women’s efforts led to the suspension of the tax on women. Funmilayo’s efforts in the revolt earned her the nickname “Lioness of Lisabi”. The AWU’s efforts also led to the temporary abdication of the Alake in 1949.
After those successes, Funmilayo-Ransome Kuti continued to work with the AWU and even dabbled in national politics. She traveled nationally and internationally, spreading the word about women’s rights for years, until her untimely death in 1978.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti’s decision to include the market women in her movement is a strong reminder of the importance of an inclusive approach to gender equality: one that acknowledges intersectionality. By recognizing that progress could not be won through elitist means, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti inspired an entire generation to fight for a more equitable future.
In conclusion, we have no choice but to stan.
[Image description: Michelle Obama clapping] via GIPHY
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