Encyclopedia Womannica

Feminists: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti

Episode Summary

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (1900-1978) was a legendary Nigerian political leader and activist who served as the leading advocate for women’s rights in Nigeria during the first half of the 20th century.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

This month of Encyclopedia Womannica is sponsored by Fiverr. Fiverr’s marketplace helps the world’s feminists get more done with less. Take Five and show your support for Fiverr’s new store at FVRR.co/women, where they feature over 100 of the platform’s top female talent.

Follow Wonder Media Network:

Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s feminist was a legendary Nigerian political leader and activist who served as the leading advocate for women’s rights in Nigeria during the first half of the 20th century.  Please welcome Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti.

Frances Abigail Olufunmilayo Thomas was born on October 25, 1900 in Nigeria to a relatively prosperous family. Her father was a farmer and trader from an aristocratic family of Christian Yoruba descent, and her mother was a dressmaker.

At the time, it was highly unusual even for wealthy families to invest much money in educating their daughters, but Frances’ parents were dead set on providing her with a good education. Starting in 1914, Frances was one of the first 6 female students to attend the prestigious Abeokuta Grammar School.

After graduating in 1917, Frances taught at her alma mater for two years. In 1919, she moved to Cheshire, England to attend a finishing school for young women. While there she experienced significant racism. Based on these experiences and a desire to lean into her African heritage after such disconcerting interactions, she decided  to change her name from the English Francis to a shortened form of her Yoruba name, Funmilayo. 

Upon her graduation from finishing school in 1922, Funmilayo returned home and took up her old teaching job at the Abeokuta Grammar School. 

Three years later, on January 20, 1925, Funmilayo married the Reverend Israel Ransome-Kuti, a member of a well-known Nigerian political family. Though the two were not in the same high school class, they had become friends around that time many years ago and had maintained a courtship. 

Israel also worked in education and the couple shared a love of teaching. Israel was a school principal and education activist who co-founded both the Nigerian Union of Teachers and the Nigerian Union of Students. Israel and Funmilayo were married for more than 30 years until Israel’s death, and had a famously happy and equal marriage. They also had four children together, including the renowned Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti.

After the wedding, Funmilayo left her teaching job to take up other pursuits, including starting one of the first preschools in Nigeria. In 1932, she helped to found the Abeokuta Ladies Club, a group of mostly middle and upper middle class Christian women with Western educations. 

Initially, the club was primarily focused on charitable work, continuing education for adult women, sewing, and club social gatherings, but by the 1940s the club had become decidedly more political and also more feminist. Funmilayo began setting up literacy workshops for women through the club. She particularly focused on bringing in women working in the markets. Those women tended to be very poor with little opportunity, if any, for education. Working with the market women gave Funmilayo new insight into the major social and political inequalities that they, like most poor women in Nigeria, experienced on a daily basis. 

In 1944, the club officially opened its doors to any woman who wanted to join, with a focus on bringing in the disenfranchised market women. With its new mission in mind, the club changed its name in 1946 to the Abeokuta Women’s Union or AWU. The AWU grew quickly, and soon had more than 20,000 members across Nigeria and many thousands more supporters. In 1949, It changed its name again to the Nigerian Women’s Union to better represent its membership.  

Off the bat, the union, with Funmilayo as president, took up the fight against absurd taxes and price controls that were specifically imposed on market women. These measures significantly limited the market womens’ possible incomes and were wildly sexist.

Starting in 1947, Funmilayo led the union in organized protests against these unfair policies and against the local government’s support of the exploitation of market women and lower class women generally. The local ruler temporarily abdicated as a result of the protests in 1949. 

Funmilayo’s larger goals for the union over time were focused on ways to raise the standard of living for Nigerian women. These initiatives included, among other things, much better and easier to access education, better healthcare, better and more fair opportunities for working women to earn money, and improved social services. 

In the 1970s, following the example of her famous musician-activist son Fela, Funmilayo officially changed her last name to Anikulapo-Kuti to better embrace her Yoruban heritage. This was also seen as an act of defiance against Nigeria’s military government of the time. Funmilayo and her son were both well-known critics. 

On February 18, 1977, while Funmilayo was visiting Fela at his compound in Lagos, 1,000 Nigerian soldiers stormed the property. At some point during the raid, soldiers grabbed Funmilayo by her hair and threw her out of a second story window. She suffered serious injuries from the fall.

Funmilayo died of complications from her injuries the following year on April 13, 1978. 

All month we’re talking about feminists. We’ve covered feminists in every theme so far. What differentiates this month is that we will be looking at women who were particularly important to the women’s rights movement, the suffrage movement, and/or modern feminism and feminist theory. On Saturdays, we’re talking about modern feminists brought to you by this month’s sponsor, Fiverr. On Sundays, we’re highlighting favorite feminists from past months chosen by other podcast hosts we love. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our new Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

This month of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by Fiverr, an online digital services marketplace connecting businesses with women who are creating, designing, copywriting, programming, editing, and more.

Fiverr is here to support the world’s freelance community during these challenging and uncertain times where businesses need to adapt in the face of the corona pandemic.  Women are an integral part of Fiverr's platform, many having worked with some of the most influential brands in the world. Fiverr is here to support all freelancers, entrepreneurs, and businesses at this time.

With Fiverr operating in over 160 countries and offering digital services across 300 categories, there are clearly lots of opportunities to change how the world works together with them in these unprecedented times. Head to FIVERR.com to see how Fiverr might be able to support you or your business.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!