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Funmilayo (Anikulapo) Ransome-Kuti: Nigerian Anti-Imperialist, Humanist, and Feminist Activist

Summary and Keywords

In the late 19th and 20th centuries, massive numbers of African women, poor and rich, educated and uneducated, were deeply involved in resistance to European colonialism/imperialism and male domination at both the national and local levels of their nations. The 1890 rebellion led by Charwe in present-day Zimbabwe, the 1929 women’s rebellion in eastern Nigeria, the 1940s women’s marches in Senegal as part of the strike of African male railway workers so beautifully chronicled in Ousmane Sembene’s God’s Bits of Wood (1960), the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the revolution against the French in Algeria, and women’s roles as troop support and combatants against the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique and against apartheid in South Africa are among the many examples of women centered in African resistance to colonialism and African nation-building. In all of these struggles women did not isolate their struggles as women from their struggles as oppressed people.

Born Frances Olufunmilayo Olufela Abigail Folorunsho Thomas, but best known as Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (and later Funmilayo Anikulapo -Kuti), is the best-known Nigerian woman anti-imperialist, pan-Africanist, and feminist. She struggled for the independence of Nigeria and the empowerment of Nigerian women to vote, be educated, and be included in the governance structures of their nation. She also identified herself as a human-rights activist who struggled on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised of all nations. She was among a small number of West African women (such as Adelaide Casely-Hayford, Constance Cummings-John, and Mabel Dove Danquah) who traveled widely internationally and who were active in international women’s organizations such as the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). At one point, when Amy Ashwood Garvey visited Nigeria, FRK wrote to ask about affiliating with Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) Women’s Corps.

In addition to her travel to many countries on the African continent, FRK traveled to Eastern and Western Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. Though invited to participate in a conference in San Francisco in the 1950s, she never visited the United States because she was unable to secure a visa due to her travel during the Cold War to eastern bloc nations and China, for which she was accused of being a communist. She was never a member of the communist party, but she did embrace the socialist ideal that all people were entitled to their freedom, education, medical care, and housing, and her activism was firmly rooted in grassroots organizing.

She is best known for having led the struggle that deposed the Alake (king) of Abeokuta, for leading women in their struggles against taxation by the British colonial government without the vote or representation in government, and for her work with the nationalist party the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) and with the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT). She founded two women’s organizations within Nigeria, the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) and the Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU-which was the basis for the formation of the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies), and a short-lived political party, the Commoners’ People’s Party (CPP). Internationally she worked with the WIDF (of which she was elected a vice president), the WILPF (that listed FRK as president of its Nigeria section), and the West African Students’ Union (WASU) of London. She authored articles on women in Nigeria in the WIDF journal, and one (“We Had Equality ’til Britain Came”) in the Daily Worker published in London.

During her lifetime as an activist, she received many honors: the Order of the Niger (1965—from the Nigerian government for her work on behalf of the nation); honorary doctorate from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria (1968); an appearance in the International Women’s Who’s Who (1969); and Lenin Peace Prize (1970).

On her death in 1978, FRK was hailed in headlines in major Nigerian newspapers as the “Voice of Women” and “The Defender of Women’s Rights.” She is also considered a pioneer in the articulation and practice of African feminism and an important figure in the rise of Nigerian radical political philosophy. Analyses of 20th-century African and transnational feminism will continue to be informed and complicated by her story.

Keywords: Abeokuta Women’s Union, Nigerian Women’s Union, Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies, Egba, Abeokuta, Wole Soyinka, World Health Association, Abeokuta Grammar School, oro, Alake, West African Students’ Union (WASU), Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT), National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC)

Early Life

Olufunmilayo Olufela Abigail Folorunsho Thomas Ransome-Kuti (later Anikulapo-Kuti), hereafter FRK, was born October 25, 1900, and died April 13, 1978, in the town of Abeokuta (southwestern Nigeria). Except for three years spent studying in England (1919–1922) and seven years spent in Ijebu-Ode (1925–1932—a small town near Abeokuta) immediately following her marriage, she lived her entire life in Abeokuta. It was her base of operations for her organizing and activism, and the place from which she traveled abroad and where she hosted visitors from abroad.

Her parents were Yoruba by ethnicity (members of the Egba subgroup of the Yoruba) but had converted to Christianity before she was born. Like many early African converts, they practiced a mixture of Christian ideology and their own traditional customs. For instance, her father, Daniel Olumeyuwa Thomas, took a second wife, Rebecca Olushade Thomas, with whom he also had children. FRK and her parents and sister resided in the town of Abeokuta, and her father’s second wife and her children resided on a farm near the town. By all accounts, including those of FRK herself and her sister, Comfort Harriet Oluremi, the two families got along well, often visited each other, and were quite close. Later in life, though, FRK would oppose polygyny.

During the early 19th century, there was a series of internecine wars among the Yoruba people. Captives from these wars were sometimes sold into slavery and one such captive, Sarah Taiwo, the great grandmother of FRK, was sold in this manner. The British had outlawed the slave trade in 1807 and often patrolled the coast of West Africa intercepting slave ships and resettling the captives along the coast, many in the colony of Sierra Leone, which was founded partially for the purpose of resettling people bound for enslavement in the Americas.1 Sarah Taiwo’s ship was intercepted and she was resettled in the Sierra Leone colony. There was a large missionary presence in Freetown (capital of Sierra Leone) and it appears that it was this community that christened her Sarah, though she kept her Yoruba name Taiwo and subsequently was known as Sarah Taiwo. Traditionally among the Yoruba, Taiwo is the name given to a first-born twin, so there is the likelihood that Sarah Taiwo had a twin, but definitive information about that is lost to history.

As with many such captives resettled in Sierra Leone, Sarah Taiwo eventually made her way back to Nigeria and subsequently to Abeokuta. Taiwo’s first son, Ebenezer Sobowale Thomas (born in Freetown), was FRK’s grandfather. He was among the first Christians in the area and was also a talented carpenter who built one of the first churches there, St. Thomas’s church. His first wife died childless, but his second wife, Abigail Fakemi, had a son born in 1869, Daniel Olumeyuwa Thomas, who would become FRK’s father.

FRK’s paternal ancestors were Western-educated and/or skilled craftsmen—including carpenters and tailors, and also successful traders. FRK’s great uncle, Moses Coker, was a very successful trader, and it is he who later arranged for her to go to England to further her education. Another ancestor, Arungbamolu, was a musician and songwriter and composed several Anglican hymns in the Yoruba language that are still popular in Nigeria today.

On her maternal side, the oldest remembered FRK relative is a man named Adeboye. His wife’s name is unknown, but they had a daughter, Harriet, who married Isaac Adeosolu, with whom she had a daughter, Lucretia Phyllis Omoyeni Adeosolu, who became FRK’s mother. Both of FRK’s parents (Daniel Thomas and Lucretia Adeosolu) were Western educated. Details of their meeting and courtship are not available, but the Western-educated Christian community in Abeokuta was close and would have made it easy for them to meet. They were married September 2, 1897, in St. Jude’s Church in Abeokuta (where Lucretia had, in fact, been baptized). Their first two children, a boy and a girl, died in infancy. Their next two children, FRK and her sister, Comfort Harriet Oluremi (born 1903 and whose later married name was Adebayo) would have long lives.

Despite being pious Anglicans, the Thomases raised their daughters in a family that was also proud of its African traditions. There was a rising proto-nationalist movement in the area at this time, beginning in the 1890s and increasing around the turn of the 20th century. This rise in nationalism among Christians was often a reaction to what they considered to be the deprecation of African culture by European missionaries. Africans also protested their inability to rise to leadership positions in Christian denominations. Though both of FRK’s parents were Western educated and spoke fluent English, they also taught their children their own Yoruba language, which was most often spoken in the home. The family wore Western clothing but ate many traditional foods. Daniel Thomas’s second wife was not wed in a Christian ceremony but rather a traditional Yoruba one, and he followed traditional Yoruba practice (based on a father’s recognition of his children) that allowed his children by the second wife to inherit from him. It was reported that he took a second wife in order to have a son.

FRK was born to Lucretia at 2:55 on the morning of October 25 in the Kemta district of Abeokuta. From all available information, she had a pleasant and secure childhood with parents who were not wealthy but were financially comfortable and respected by both the African and European communities in Abeokuta. Whatever disapproval there may have been among the European Christian community over Daniel Thomas’s polygynous marriage, it did not negatively affect the family’s opportunities in business or education. FRK’s father was a successful trader and her mother was a dressmaker. They both fervently supported the Western education of Africans, including girls. In fact, this was true of much of the Abeokuta African Christian community. It was one of the first areas in Nigeria to levy itself to construct schools that admitted, at the primary level, both girls and boys, followers of traditional religions, and Muslims. From the very beginning, FRK was educated equally with others and in a very diverse community of learners. This would serve her well later in life.

She attended the infant mission school in Kemta, Abeokuta, and then the primary school at St. John’s, Igbein, which was nearby. In 1914, when it came time for secondary school, her parents were forced to consider several options because the local secondary school, Abeokuta Grammar School (AGS), was all male. This was the school that FRK’s husband, Reverend Israel Olodotun Ransome-Kuti (several years her senior), had attended. Because his name appeared first on the roll of students when the school opened, he earned the nickname Daodu, or “firstborn son” of the AGS. Later he would have the nickname Dotun, a shortened version of his middle name, Olodotun. As was common during that time, he hyphenated his Yoruba last name, Kuti, with the last name of a European Christian missionary who had befriended his family, Ransome.

FRK’s parents wished her to remain in Abeokuta and thus joined with several other families to convince the principal of the AGS, Reverend M. S. Cole (an African who himself supported the idea of educating girls), to make it co-educational. The first class of girls was admitted to the AGS, including FRK, who, like her future husband with the first cohort of boys, was the first on the roll of the new class of girls, thus earning her the nickname Beere, or “firstborn daughter” of the AGS.

In 1917, because she was considered an excellent student and had taken her junior preceptor’s examination, FRK was chosen by Principal Cole to teach the girls in the younger grades. From 1917 to 1919, she taught the younger girls and was personally tutored by Cole. In 1919, believing that she had learned all she could at the AGS, FRK’s parents wished to send her to England. They did not have sufficient financial means to do so on their own, but with the help of family and friends, FRK was sent to England to continue her education.2

Education in England, Marriage, and Family

By the time FRK left for England, she and her future husband had already begun courting. She briefly considered staying home and marrying him, but her father insisted that she should continue her education and that, if the romance endured during her time away, it would be on a solid footing. On leaving for England, FRK wrote a beautiful love letter to Dotun, which said, in part, “My heart has been much filled of you. . . . My darling, I cannot force you to wait for me for you are now old enough to have a partner, but how sad it will be at this age of our match to break . . . Never shall I forget you; the man to whom I first gave my heart.”3

FRK attended Wincham Hall School for Girls in Cheshire, England. As with many girls’ schools of the time, it had as much a “finishing school” as an academic curriculum. She boarded with a British family named Horsfield who were a contact with her great uncle, Moses Coker. She later reported that the family were good to her, but she had several negative experiences connected to her race and national origin while in England. It was in England that she dropped the use of her Christian name, Frances, and instead instructed everyone to call her by her Yoruba name, Funmilayo. As will be seen later, FRK remained sensitive to issues of race and national origin thereafter. Interestingly enough, none of the Ransome-Kuti children have English given names, only Yoruba names.

Except for a few anecdotes gleaned through personal interviews with FRK and her sister, Comfort, there is little other information regarding her stay in England. Comfort did report that FRK sent her hats, shoes, and underwear to be re-sold in Abeokuta as Comfort had a growing trading business. FRK also reported that she learned to ride a bicycle while in England. Later, she would the first woman in Abeokuta to learn to drive a car.

In September 1922 FRK returned to Abeokuta from England. The following year she began teaching the female students of the AGS and was later named a head teacher there. She taught algebra, English, geometry, Latin, and drawing.

The Reverend Ransome-Kuti resumed courting FRK, and they were married on January 20, 1925, at St. Peter’s Church, Ake, Abeokuta. The couple had four children (a daughter and three sons): Dolupo (daughter, 1926), Olikoye (1927), Olufela (1938), and Bekolari (1940). All of the children are now deceased. Each of the children professed that their mother’s involvement in social-justice issues had a profound effect on the careers they chose and the work of their lives.

Dolupo Ransome-Kuti (known affectionately as Dolu) followed in her mother’s footsteps and studied in London. While there she became pregnant by another Nigerian student, Dapo Soetan, and had a daughter born November 26, 1949, and christened Frances after FRK. Later both Dolu and Frances returned to Nigeria, where Dolu was a nurse and Frances a dentist.

Olikoye Ransome-Kuti (known as Koye) studied pediatric medicine at the University of Dublin and the Institute of Child Health Hospital in London. He served as the minister of health for Nigeria 1985–1992. He was very active both within Nigeria and in the international arena to improve the health of children, and among his many awards is one from the World Health Organization conferred in 1986.

Olufela (Fela) is the best known of the Ransome-Kuti children and was the closest with his mother. He was an internationally acclaimed musician who professed a Pan-African philosophy and in the early 1970s both he and FRK changed their surnames to the Yoruba name Anikulapo-Kuti. There are many articles about Fela and his music in the New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and other major media outlets. In a December 20, 1985, edition of the Chicago newspaper The Reader, a lengthy profile discusses how Fela modeled his protest music on his mother’s example. In 1999 a successful Broadway play Fela! was produced.

Bekolari Ransome-Kuti (Beko) was also a medical doctor and for several years a national vice president of the Nigerian Medical Association. He was also an internationally well-known human-rights activist and in 1988 was appointed by the Commonwealth Medical Association to the Eminent Persons Advisory Group on Human Rights. His activities on behalf of human rights and in protest of military rule in Nigeria are well documented (for instance, see New York Times May 23 and 31, 1992 and June 17, 1993). Also well documented is the support for Beko by Wole Soyinka, the first African and Nigerian Nobel Laureate (literature, 1986) and a nephew of FRK.

On July 12, 1985, the Nigerian newspaper Vanguard addressed the Ransome-Kuti children, saying, “It is as though your illustrious parents decided that not only were they going to be absolutely patriotic citizens, ready for the big fight to save Nigeria from all manner of scourges, they also decided to raise a brood of their own kind.”

The Reverend Ransome-Kuti was also an unusual man for his time. Many informants insisted that the Ransome-Kutis did not have the typical male-dominated marriage of the period. In several interviews in the 1970s FRK spoke of the love and support she received from her husband in her activist days: “He was a fine man, hardworking, understanding and cooperative. He was a woman’s man. He hated women being exploited. Many times, he was sent for and told ‘come and see what your wife is doing.’ He merely smiled and told them to leave me alone as I had my own mind. He never went against anything I did.”4

As early as 1953, Reverend Ransome-Kuti’s health had begun to deteriorate due to cancer, and on April 6, 1955, he died. FRK experienced a great sense of loss on her husband’s death. In a June 1973 interview with Woman’s World magazine (Nigeria) she reflected, “When a woman suddenly finds herself a widow, particularly if she and her husband had been very close as mine and I were, it will be then that she will need something to help her keep her balance from the sorrow that often springs from that loss.” FRK kept that balance by doing what she had begun in the 1920s with her husband’s strong support—organizing and actions on behalf of social justice for the poor, especially poor women.5

Leadership of Women in Nigeria

On the day of their marriage the Ransome-Kutis moved to Ijebu-Ode, where the reverend had taken a position as principal of the Ijebu-Ode Grammar School in 1919, the year FRK left for England. FRK would remark that the first years of her marriage were unforgettably happy. Within a few years of being in Ijebu-Ode, she founded a kindergarten class at the grammar school that was simply called “Mrs. Kuti’s class.”

In the late 1920s, FRK began her first women’s organization, the Ijebu-Ode Young Women’s Club. It primarily offered instruction in various social skills such as handicrafts and cooking to young women of elite families. During these early years, FRK and many women like her (such as Charlotte Obasa, Oyinkan Abayomi, Tinuola Dedeke, and Elsie Femi-Pearse) straddled the cultures of Africa and Europe and were neither completely African nor completely European in their life styles and beliefs. They used Yoruba names and spoke the Yoruba language but also demanded the right to an academic European education (not just sewing and domestic “science”), employment in the civil service, the franchise and to participate equally with men in the early nationalist parties.

Soon, through the ladies’ club, FRK reached out to a broader constituency of non-elite women and began offering literacy classes. This was the beginning of her ascension to the very small ranks of African women of her generation who began to propose systemic solutions that went beyond the mere reform of colonialism or even independence, to propose a new social order that more evenly distributed wealth and power. It was during these years in Ijebu-Ode that FRK began to embrace a humanist philosophy that believed that all human beings were entitled to certain things: among them the right to participate in their governance through the franchise, free medical care, affordable education, and decent housing. She also believed women and men to be equally entitled to participate in the development of the nation.

While in Ijebu-Ode, the Ransome-Kutis also became involved in the Association of Headmasters of Ijebu Schools (AHIS), which the reverend helped form and of which he was the first president. The inaugural meeting was held at the Ijebu-Ode Grammar School. In 1931 the AHIS became the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT), a nationalist organization that not only sought to improve the schools and conditions of teachers in Nigeria, but also made other explicitly political recommendations such as that government-run hospitals should treat schoolchildren free of charge.

FRK is listed as one of the founding charter members of the NUT.

The Ransome-Kutis were also very supportive of the West African Students’ Union (WASU). Founded in August 1925 by Ladipo Solanke (a Nigerian and a close friend of the Ransome-Kutis) and Herbert Bankole Bright (a native of Sierra Leone), WASU formed to represent students of West African background who were studying in the United Kingdom. WASU was Pan-Africanist in its orientation and sought not only to address the racism and other issues of African students in the United Kingdom, but also argued for progress in addressing the needs of Africans in the colonies, particularly for higher education, but also for independence. WASU also founded branches in several British colonies in Africa, including Nigeria. Among the first members in Nigeria were the Reverend Ransome-Kuti and FRK.

In 1931 the Reverend Ransome-Kuti was invited by the Anglican District Church Council to become principal of the Abeokuta Grammar School (AGS). He accepted and the Ransome-Kutis returned to Abeokuta in 1932. Immediately FRK earmarked two classrooms for Mrs. Kuti’s kindergarten class and subsequently petitioned the Nigerian Department of Education to approve a primary school, which she would operate as an affiliate of the AGS. FRK was at the forefront of efforts of Western-educated Nigerian women who formed schools for girls’ education. In the 1940s through the 1960s, several of these schools would proliferate in major Nigerian cities in the southwest such as Lagos and Ibadan. At least one (founded in Ibadan in 1964 by Alhaja Humani Alaga) was specifically for the Western education of Muslim girls.

Under the leadership of the Ransome-Kutis, the AGS was co-educational and also served as the family’s home until the death of the reverend in 1955. One former student reported that discipline was strong but fair and expectations for students were high. There were both boarding and commuter students, and as many as six hundred students attended at its peak. Boarding students (including eventually the Ransome-Kuti children) were required to participate in the physical chores associated with maintenance of the school. The Ransome-Kuti boys were taught to cook and clean, as was their sister—tasks were not gender based. The integration of the school and the family’s living quarters enabled FRK’s political activity and absences from home on behalf of her organizing efforts.

Also in that same year (1932), FRK founded another young ladies’ club, and though it continued to have sewing and etiquette lessons and to organize young women and men in athletic games and present lectures for their entertainment and education, it also began to develop a stronger civic focus. Within a few years of its founding, FRK was approached by an old friend and former student who introduced her to a market woman who told FRK she had a great desire to learn to read. The woman confided that she often purchased newspapers that she kept for the day when she would learn to read them. FRK later recalled that there was a woman who attended the same church as her who often held her hymnal upside down because she could not read. FRK’s determination to teach these women to read led to her increasing involvement with poor and uneducated women. These efforts eventually resulted in the March 1944 founding of the Abeokuta Ladies’ Club (ALC). The ALC was drawn more and more into explicitly political work, especially on behalf of the market women, very few of whom could read or write. The ALC greatly expanded its literacy classes, and the organization developed a list of rules and regulations that included among its aims “To help in raising the standard of womanhood in Abeokuta . . .to help encourage learning among the adults and thereby wipe out illiteracy.”6 FRK recruited her Western-educated friends, as well as many of her family members, to work in the tutoring project. Her two eldest children, Dolu and Koye, tutored, as did her nephew (the future Nobel Laureate) Wole Soyinka and his mother Eniola Soyinka.

In some parts of Nigeria, such as Lagos, the market women were organized into strong, diversified associations. This was not true of Abeokuta, where the women were organized into smaller, commodity-based groups. Through the literacy efforts of the ALC, FRK’s reputation among the market women was very strong. They considered her to be a woman of integrity and one who had their interests at heart. So in 1945 when the colonial government began to seize the rice of the Abeokuta market women rice sellers (in an effort to remedy shortages created by WWII), the women complained to the ALC. The ALC determined to approach the government on behalf of the women and asked that members of the NUT (headed by the Reverend Ransome-Kuti) accompany them. Three members of the ALC (including FRK) and three of the NUT (it is not clear whether the reverend was part of this delegation) went to the colonial assistant district officer (ADO) for Abeokuta to demand an end to the seizure of the women’s rice. With no satisfactory response from the ADO, the women met with the Egba Native Administration Council (composed of colonial officers and Egba [Yoruba subgroup that settled Abeokuta] “rulers” who were the administrators of the colonial district of Abeokuta and its environs). Then the women took their protest to the public, convening a press conference, a summary of which was published in the Daily Service (Nigeria) newspaper of November 12, 1945. The article quoted the ALC conveners as saying, “We the members of the Abeokuta Ladies’ Club, on behalf of all Egba women, appeal to the press of Nigeria to help to bring the seriousness of the position [of the market women] to the attention of the authorities before it is too late.” Within a week of the article’s appearance and the ensuing bad publicity, the confiscation of rice ceased. The women were elated over this victory. Wole Soyinka, who was involved in tutoring the women on his aunt’s (FRK) behalf, and who often ran errands for her associated with the ALC, later wrote, “The movement . . . begun over cups of tea and sandwiches to resolve the problem of the newlyweds who lacked the necessary social graces . . . became all tangled up in the move to put an end to the role of white men in the country.”7

The market women were also exploited by a phenomenon known as “conditional sales,” in which they were required to buy slow-moving items in tandem with items highly desired in the marketplace. For instance, to buy sugar (a fast-moving item) they also had to purchase cutlasses, of which they would sell very few. Given that the majority of market women survived on very small margins of profit, this made the situations of most of them very economically precarious. FRK later recorded in her diary that as the market women described these and other oppressive circumstances to her, she became extremely angry and committed herself to make change. She confided to her friends, “We educated women [are] living outside the daily life of the people.”8 In fact, no photograph taken of her after the late 1940s shows her in Western clothing. Rather, she is always wearing the wrapped cloth of the Egba women. She said she did so “to make women feel and know I was one of them.”9 Given the more radical turn her political pronouncements would take, this seems a statement aimed as much at class allegiance with the market women as of cultural identification. She also began employing Yoruba in her public speeches rather than English. This meant that the British required translation rather than the market women requiring translation.

After the action surrounding the rice sellers, the ALC composed a list of demands on behalf of the market women, including the establishment of health clinics and playgrounds near schools and sanitation improvements at the markets. They also called for the government to leave the control of trading to the market women themselves and for no increase in the existing colonial tax on women.

The issue of female taxation had long been an objectionable one. It was a “head” tax on each adult, and women were considered adults at fifteen and taxed separately from their husbands whether or not they earned income. Supposedly these taxes were levied for “development” of the colonies, but there was little colonial government development that benefited most of the people. The ALC objected strenuously to the abusive nature of tax collection in which women were assaulted and sometimes stripped naked, ostensibly to determine whether they had reached a taxable age. Some women had been jailed for failure to pay their taxes.

The British system of rule in southern Nigeria, including Abeokuta, was “indirect.” That meant they subcontracted the execution of colonial policies to local indigenous authorities, such as the Alake (or traditional ruler) of Abeokuta. Though the office of Alake predated colonialism, in instituting indirect rule the British had expanded the authority of the office and paid little attention to the traditional system of checks and balances such as the Ogboni society, which had previously been able to oppose the policies of or even depose an Alake. Women were particularly disenfranchised by indirect rule as their traditional representation in government (such as the titled Iyalode[s] of the market[s]) was ignored both by the British, and at British insistence, by the indigenous authorities such as the Alake, who were paid by colonial authorities and owed their power to them.

The Alake in office at the time of the women’s protests was Ademola II. As early as the 1930s, he was already unpopular with much of the population of Abeokuta, both poor and working educated, for the way the taxation of women had been instituted and executed. Several articles had also appeared in local Nigerian newspapers (e.g., The West African Pilot of November 20 and 25, 1939) that accused the Alake of appropriating land that did not belong to him and leasing it to European firms and commercial agents. Though many complaints had been registered with the colonial administration against the Alake, they were dismissed as the grumbling of an “undisciplined” populace, and colonial annual reports are full of praise for him.

Within months of the rice protest, the ALC changed its name to the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) with FRK at its head. The name change signaled a commitment to avowedly political purposes and an anticolonial orientation. Tens of thousands of market women now began to swell the organization’s ranks and join in its protest actions. Meetings usually took place in the courtyard of the AGS. In his autobiography Ake: The Years of Childhood, Wole Soyinka writes, “Women of every occupation . . . the cloth dyers, weavers, basket makers and the usual traders of the markets . . . came from near and distant compounds.”10 The AWU adopted the motto “Unity, Cooperation, Selfless Service and Democracy” and the goals “To unite women, to defend, protect, preserve and promote social, economic and political rights and interests of women; to cooperate with all organizations seeking and fighting genuinely and selflessly for the economic and political freedom and independence of the people.”11 At its peak in the 1940s, the organization had over twenty thousand dues-paying members that included Christians, Muslims, and followers of indigenous religions.

FRK was clear that the protests against the Alake were also protests against colonial rule. In a 1975 interview with New Breed magazine, she is quoted as saying, “What people are saying is that I attacked Ademola . . . I attacked imperialism. Those Europeans were using him against his people . . . I was attacking Europeans indirectly and they know it.”

By 1947 the women were organizing massive protests aimed at ending the taxation of women, restoring women’s power over the markets (such as the ability to fix prices and locations of markets), increasing educational opportunities for girls and boys, and improving the provision of medical scare and decent housing for the poor and the working poor. FRK held training sessions for the women at the AGS. They practiced how to quickly collect the tear-gas canisters that were thrown at them and throw them back at the authorities. When they were unable to get permits to march, the women insisted that their large protest gatherings were picnics or festivals.

There is a particularly powerful story told about FRK. Part of the power of the Ogboni society rested in a ritual in which they brought oro out to silence women. When the men paraded with oro (a long wooden stick with a hole at one end through which a string was attached to emit a whirring sound when it was waved above one’s head), women were forbidden from being in the streets or looking at oro. During one of the women’s demonstrations, the men paraded with “oro” to stop the demonstration. An angry and fearless FRK left the head of the demonstration and approached the man waving “oro,” grabbed the instrument, and took it to her home, where she displayed it to show women it could not harm them. Actions such as this one prompted many of the market women to refer to FRK as their “king [sic] who made their lives better” and to say, “It was their God who created Mrs. Kuti, that made a gift of her to them as their mother.”12 Subsequently the women themselves threatened the men that the women would bring out oro and no man had better be in the street or look at it!

Women also used the traditional protest activity referred to in the literature as “sitting on a man.” Women would approach the home or office of a man and not permit him to leave while they sang derisive songs that ridiculed and insulted him. FRK led women to the Afin (palace of the Alake Ademola), where they sang songs such as “O ye men, vagina’s head will seek vengeance . . . white man you will not get to your country safely, you and Alake will not die an honorable death.” At one such demonstration, the British district officer reportedly told the women to “shut up,” to which FRK replied that he had been born but not bred and asked if he would talk to his mother like that. The women then threatened in another song to cut off his genitals and send them to this mother. There is another story (reported in the Daily Worker of May 14, 1952): reportedly one woman’s husband would not allow her to join the protest, so several hundred women went to her house, dragged her husband out, and rolled him in the dust. After that, FRK remarked, “Now we have no more opposition from men.”

The AWU composed over 200 songs to use in their protests. Some songs were ecumenical reflecting the diverse religious affiliations of AWU members: “Because we are fighting on the right the Lord will make us victorious.” “The streets of Mecca are as bright as daylight.” They sang praise songs to the Orisa (the Yoruba pantheon of gods and goddesses). And they praised FRK “Beere. . . . all of your plans have yielded successful results . . . whosoever follows the crooked way shall incur Beere’s displeasure.”13

There are many stories about how FRK showed great courage during the protests. At one point a letter was sent to FRK to invite a representative of the AWU to attend a meeting at the Afin with the British district officer (DO) and the Alake. FRK turned up with a large contingent of women but was told anyone but she could attend. The women insisted it be FRK to represent them, and the DO then attempted to leave the Afin. The women surrounded it and would not permit him to leave. He finally rushed out to jump in his car, and FRK grabbed the steering wheel. Allegedly her hand had to be pried loose before he could start the car (p. 85).14

The AWU held press conferences to present their demands and constantly sent letters to the newspapers and to indigenous and British administrators of the area. They also sent many petitions. Little by little the tide began to turn and many of the newspapers began to call for change and respect for the women’s demands. Many women were also arrested. By July 1948, as the women continued their massive demonstrations and secured the strong support of the Ogboni Society (which traditionally could repudiate the ruler, and which later did), the Alake agreed to appoint some women to government bodies. That was not enough. He then resigned as the indigenous district administrator but sought to retain his title as ruler. That, too, was not enough.

On January 3, 1949, Alake Ademola II abdicated his throne. Although the AWU had eventually won the support of the all-male Majeobaje society and even the Ogboni society, it is the women and their protests that are primarily credited with unseating the ruler. After the Alake’s abdication, the market women declared a holiday, and the AWU published a pamphlet (in Yoruba and English) “The Fall of a Ruler: The Freedom of Egbaland” that chronicled the story of their protests and even quoted from the American Declaration of Independence on the rights of the governed. Nigerian newspapers recognized the primary role of the women in the abdication, and even the Alake himself acknowledged the women’s role in his abdication when he was quoted in a Daily Service article of January 5, 1949, as saying that until the women commenced their protests, there had been no major complaints against his rule. A later scholarly history of the area observed, “Inspired by Mrs. Ransome-Kuti, the Egba Women’s Union [AWU] . . . was chiefly responsible for the agitation that . . . led to the abdication of the Alake of Abeokuta.”15

Even though the Alake was restored to his throne two years later, the AWU had achieved suspension of taxation on women, a reorganization of the administrative council and women’s representation on it, and, of course, the abdication of the ruler they had opposed as a lackey of British colonialism. When the Alake returned, despite his promises not to take revenge on any of the women and to be inclusive in his rule, old disagreements surfaced with the women, and the AWU continued its protests under Kuti’s leadership. But the organization had grown even more and taken leadership in a number of areas, it operated a weaving association, ran a maternity and child welfare clinic, and continued to conduct expanded literacy classes.

FRK looked to take the AWU to a national level, resulting in the founding of the Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU) in May 1949. The NWU expanded at first to cities in the southwest such as Ijebu-Ode, Ilaro, and Ijebu-Remo. By 1950 branches were established in the east at Enugu, Aba, and Onitsha, and in the midwest at Benin. Later branches were formed in the north at Zaria, Kaduna, Jos, and Kano. As it spread the NWU seems to have become a series of autonomous branches, each most concerned with the issues of women in their particular areas.

In August 1953 FRK invited all women’s organizations in Nigeria to a two-day conference in Abeokuta, which she described as a parliament of the women of Nigeria. Four hundred women delegates attended from fifteen Nigerian provinces. The women who attended were of many different ethnicities, social-economic classes, and religious practices. This resulted in the founding of the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies (FNWS)—which, rather than replacing existing women’s organizations, was meant to be an umbrella organization of such groups. Among other things, the FNWS pledged itself to achieve universal adult suffrage, even advocating the use of symbols in elections in order to enfranchise the illiterate. FRK became the first president of the FNWS and toured the east and the north of the country to speak to women and men on the need for more educational facilities for women, the franchise for women, and their representation in government. The next decade leading up to Nigerian independence became ever more fractured by ethnic rivalries. As many things happened and FRK became drawn into international groups, as she aged and as her husband became ill and died, the FNWS also dwindled in its membership, and a government-supported women’s organization, The National Council of Women’s Societies, with far less avowedly political purposes, began to displace it.

FRK, true to her political passions, publicly and passionately criticized certain indigenous customs such as polygyny. And by 1957, in a June 2 article in the Sunday Times newspaper, she called for an end to colonialism and full self-government for Nigeria.16

The Political Stage and the International Arena

In the midst of the women’s protests, FRK was drawn onto the national political stage in Nigeria and into the international arena. Her political philosophy continued to develop, but women’s liberation (and she used the word “liberation”) and improving the conditions of and opportunities for the poor remained at its center.17

Her initial involvement with politics outside of Nigeria was with WASU. And, when the Reverend Ransome-Kuti traveled to England on behalf of the NUT and struck up a friendship with Arthur Creech-Jones, a founder of the Fabian Colonial Bureau, hereafter FCB (a London-based British group with socialist principles that sought to influence British colonial policy toward independence for the colonies), FRK was also drawn into the orbit of Creech-Jones. In 1944 Creech-Jones visited Nigeria and met FRK, and she began to carry on a correspondence with him and his wife. During the women’s demonstrations, FRK had called on the Creech-Joneses and their friends in the FCB to publicize the tear gassing and arrests of the women protesters. Thus by the time of FRK’s second foray to England, this time not as a student but as a representative of a nationalist party seeking Nigerian independence, she already had friends there.

In the midst of the women’s protest in 1947, FRK was asked to accompany a delegation of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) on a visit to England. Among the most important of the nationalist parties, the NCNC was founded in 1944 by Nnamdi Nzikiwe (who later served as the first President of Nigeria) and Herbert Macaulay. The Ransome-Kutis were among the founding members of the NCNC. FRK had not been the first choice of the NCNC in their search for a woman to be among their delegation, particularly because she had a reputation of not being able to be controlled. But she ended up being the woman who was the sole female delegate.

The NCNC spent two months in London in the late summer and early fall of 1947. To some extent the trip had poor timing, as the British Parliament was in recess much of the time the delegates were in England. But FRK was not deterred and set about on her own contacting women’s and workers’ organizations. Arthur Creech-Jones assigned a woman from his office at the FCB to help her develop an itinerary, and his wife, Violet, helped her set up engagements. On her own FRK contacted the British Broadcasting Corporation to line up interviews.

Throughout her time in London, she addressed the London Women’s Parliament Committee, a group of women journalists, the London Federation of Young Farmer’s Clubs, the National Federation of Women Institute, and the National Townswomen’s Guild. She visited factories and daycare centers. Everywhere, she told the story of women’s struggles in Nigeria for the franchise, education, health care, and opportunities for their children. She addressed the need for Nigerian independence and spoke of the women’s demonstrations and organizing efforts. London definitely knew she was there. She also published an article in the British newspaper The Daily Worker on August 10, 1947. Entitled “We Had Equality Until Britain Came” (though FRK did not choose the title), in which she argued that colonialism had marginalized women in the political and economic spheres far more than their indigenous systems, and that colonialism had levied unjust taxes on women without even giving them the right to vote. Given the passionate and dangerous struggle of British women to get the franchise, this last charge truly resonated. FRK also accused the British of fashioning colonialism as a near slavery, especially for women. She asked the help of British women in liberating their Nigerian sisters.

The article created a stir when reprinted in Nigeria newspapers and, as might be expected, was denounced by colonial officials and a number of elite Nigerians. The AWU and the Lagos Marketwomen’s Association held mass rallies supporting FRK and organized a major welcome-home reception when she returned to Nigeria. In defending what she said, FRK reported in West African Pilot of September 2, 1948, “The true position of Nigerian women had to be judged from the women who carried babies on their backs and farmed from sunrise to sunset...not women who used tea, sugar and flour for breakfast.”

During this 1947 trip to London as a member of the NCNC delegation, FRK met London-based members of the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF). Founded in Paris in 1945 by members of the French resistance to the Nazis, the WIDF was also supported by the Soviet Union. Among its aims was to unite women regardless of race, religion, nationality, or political opinion. The organization passionately supported the human rights of women and children. It also took decidedly pacifist, antiracist, and anticolonial positions. Though during its lifetime (approximately 1945–1991) there were women representatives from 40–117 countries represented in its ranks, it was never well known in the United States, probably because of it support by the Soviet Union, but just as likely because of its strong emphasis on women in Africa and Asia and its antiracist stance. But the WIDF was never a “Soviet front” organization, and women from many non-communist countries were active in it.

FRK was impressed by the attitudes, commitment, and agenda of the WIDF. When the organization’s secretariat set up a commission to investigate the conditions of women in Africa and Asia, they asked FRK to write a one-page report on the conditions of women in Nigeria. This report was published in a 1948 issue of the WIDF Information Bulletin and then subsequently (along with reports from other parts of Africa and from Asia) was reprinted in a WIDF sponsored book The Women of Asia and Africa: Documents.18

After returning from England to Nigeria, FRK had an active correspondence with the WIDF. Initially she was somewhat circumspect about the correspondence because politics in Nigeria, as in much of western Europe and the United States, had entered the era of the Cold War and taken a decidedly anti-communist and anti-Soviet turn. Because the WIDF was identified with socialist policies, all of those associated with it were labeled as communist sympathizers if not actual communists, and FRK did not want such an accusation to inhibit her organizing efforts. FRK never professed communism nor joined any communist organizations, but she was not a rabid anti-communist and accepted help from wherever it was forthcoming. For instance, for a period of time there were science teachers from the Soviet Union who taught at the school she and her husband founded in Abeokuta.

By 1952 FRK had decided to accept WIDF invitations to various international conferences. In April 1952, she attended a WIDF-sponsored conference in Vienna on “The Defense of Children,” and in June 1953 she attended another in Copenhagen sponsored by the World Congress of Women. She also wrote another article on women in Nigeria for the WIDF bulletin.19

In July 1954, the Secretary General of the WIDF visited FRK in Nigeria. That same year the British and the provisional pre-independence Nigerian government enacted a ban on communist literature in Nigeria and forbade the hiring in the civil service of anyone with communist affiliations. In May 1955 FRK was invited to attend a WIDF conference in Helsinki. When she applied to renew her passport, she was told that the government had determined that the WIDF was a communist organization and that if she continued her affiliation with it she might have her passport revoked. By this time the WIDF was referring to FRK as a vice president on its council, and in 1956 when there was a WIDF Council meeting in Beijing, she was invited and went to China for three weeks. She was tremendously impressed with the role of women in China and with the educational system and medical care in China, all of which she publicly praised. She also had an audience with Mao Zedong. In the May 28, 1956, issue of the London Times, there was an article entitled “The Indoctrination of Africans” that cited FRK as an example of the attempt of communists to manipulate British colonial subjects. In 1957 when she submitted her passport for renewal, her request was denied by Tafawa Balewa (the pre-independence Prime Minister) and the British senior assistant secretary of immigration. Though some in Nigeria supported the denial, many did not, and an article in the January 2, 1958, Daily Times newspaper accused the government of unnecessary “restriction of civil liberties” and was opposed to the denial of FRK’s passport renewal. FRK accused the colonial government of both racism and sexism and bridled at the idea that she was a pawn, which she felt insulted both her intelligence and her integrity.

FRK continued to deny that she was a communist, and it does not appear that she was. But she accepted help in her struggles within Nigeria from sources as different as the strongly anticommunist British Women’s International Association and the Soviet Women’s Committee. She greatly resisted having to choose her associates based on what someone else believed to be appropriate. When she felt she was engaged in a just cause, she sought help from those who might have been one another’s enemy, but not her enemy. She continued her relationship with the WIDF, which was at least partially responsible for her inability to receive a visa to visit the United States when invited to a conference in San Francisco in 1958.

FRK was also involved with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Founded in 1915 on the eve of WWI, the WILPF was a pacifist organization that was also committed to women’s enfranchisement. Its efforts were focused on Europe and North America until the 1950s, when it began to look toward the rest of the world as it emerged from colonialism. In the early 1960s, the WILPF attempted to reorganize in Nigeria after an initial failed attempt in the 1950s. The organization was referred to FRK by Sam Enwerenzu, a Nigerian student in Pennsylvania whom the WILPF had contacted for references in Nigeria. In February 1961, a WILPF representative, Emily Simon, visited Nigeria and was hosted by FRK in Abeokuta, who later that year formed a Nigerian branch of the WILPF in Abeokuta. Many members of the WILPF leadership sought to “lead and teach” African women. And recognizing this, some WILPF leaders such as Dorothy Steffens cautioned against “[marching] into Africa carrying the torch of enlightenment,” pointing out that African women were able to lead themselves.20 Within a few years, the WILPF branch in Nigeria was once again defunct.

FRK also traveled to Austria, the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), Germany, Hungary, Poland, Russia (then the Soviet Union), and Switzerland. Among her international travel and connections was also travel across the African continent. She visited women’s organizations in Algeria, Cameroons, Dahomey (now Benin), Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Togo. In her correspondence were letters from women’s organizations in Bulgaria, India, Korea, Trinidad, and Vietnam. There was a particularly poignant correspondence with several women in South Africa after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in which a number of women protesters were killed.21

FRK also had a friendship with Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of an independent Ghana (the colonial Gold Coast). FRK’s son, Fela, remembers his mother introducing him to Nkrumah.22 Nkrumah consulted with FRK about the Ghanaian Women’s Organization and when she attended its inaugural meeting credited her with helping to inspire its creation.23

Though FRK championed internationalism, she was also very concerned about the development of the Nigerian nation. She once remarked about the Nigerian national anthem, composed by the British Lady Flora Lugard (wife of a former governor of Nigeria, Frederick Lugard), “It is most surprising that it was not possible to find a person within 30,000,000 people capable enough to compose our national anthem. We as women are proud to see that the anthem had been composed by a woman. But we would have wished her to be a Nigerian woman. We hope she [Lady Lugard] will pardon us for this expression. It is only natural that we should feel that.”24

FRK made several attempts to engage in the national political arena. In 1951, under terms of the Macpherson Constitution of that year, in actions the British considered “preparing” Nigeria for independence, three political parties were anointed. The NCNC (with which FRK had traveled to England in 1947), the Action Group (AG), and the Northern People’s Congress (NPC). That same year there were elections for the regional Houses of Assembly. Elections were to be held at the primary, intermediate, and final levels for seats in the Houses. FRK was the only female candidate and won the election for the primary college in Kemta, Abeokuta, in the western region in August 1951. Only taxpayers could vote, which eliminated a number of women. In the north, in fact, only men could vote. She would later lose the large election to Ayo Rosiji (a man), and FRK observed, “Many people felt that if women could have played a prominent part in voting, things would have been much better done . . . Women are earnestly praying for the day when there will be universal adult suffrage.”25

By the late 1950s, FRK continued as an active member of the NCNC and was president of its western Nigeria women’s wing and treasurer of its Western Working Committee. In 1959 she wished to run for political office, a seat in the Federal House of Assembly. Initially her candidacy was supported by the NCNC secretariat in Abeokuta, and she was slated to be the party’s official candidate. The national executive of the NCNC however did not support FRK’s candidacy, and she accused them of making that decision because they could not control her. She thus chose to run as an independent, and as a result of the split in the vote, the NCNC lost the election to the Action Group. FRK was then expelled from the NCNC. She then decided to form an independent political party, the Commoners’ People’s Party (CPP). She later said that her main purpose in forming the party was to get local women in Abeokuta elected to offices so that they could represent their interests. The party only lasted a little over a year. Its main contribution to the political debate seems to have been its focus on empowering women and the poor.

In a 1961 article in the Journal of Human Relations, FRK expounded on her political philosophy.26 She proclaimed literacy to be the weapon of liberty, which helps explain her dedication to education for women and the poor. She suggested that Nigerian doctors analyze the vitamins and minerals in common Nigerian fruits and vegetables and instruct women how to combine them for economical and nutritionally balanced meals. She called on Nigeria to encourage cooperative farming and remarked on Pan-Africanism: “When any section of African people is still in slavery, no independent section can be truly happy.”27

Nigeria gained its independence from Britain in October 1960 but by 1966 experienced its first military coup. For the remainder of FRK’s life, Nigeria was ruled by the military, severely circumscribing civilian political activity. She continued to run the Abeokuta school founded by her and the Reverend Ransome-Kuti, but for various reasons it fell on hard times. She also engaged in a number of court cases surrounding family land.28

From 1965 to 1970, FRK was the recipient of a number of honors, both domestic and international. In 1965 the Nigerian government awarded her membership in the Order of the Niger for her contributions to the nation. In 1968, she received an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Ibadan (Nigeria), after which she wrote the vice chancellor saying in part that the degree was “proof of your telling me I am not alone in my struggle.”29 In 1969 she appeared in the International Women’s Who’s Who and that same year was appointed chair of the Western State Advisory Board of Education and wrote in her acceptance speech, “May I never let womanhood down.”30 (Figure 1) In 1970 she was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, and the Soviet ambassador to Nigeria, A. Romanov, wrote to her that the prize was “in recognition of your noble activities for many years in promoting friendship and mutual cooperation between Nigerian and Soviet peoples.” He enclosed a letter of congratulation signed by the chair of the Soviet Women’s Committee, Valentina Nikolaeva-Tereshkova.31

Funmilayo (Anikulapo) Ransome-Kuti: Nigerian Anti-Imperialist, Humanist, and Feminist ActivistClick to view larger

Figure 1. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti at her 70th birthday on October 24, 1970. Ransome-Kuti family archives. Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Death and Legacy

By the 1970s due to a combination of increasing age, military rule, lawsuits connected to her finances, and attempts to live on revenue derived from her educational activities, FRK was much less in the spotlight.32 She continued to correspond with women’s organizations all over the world and was often sought out for interviews by both national and international publications. She also continued as a mentor for younger activist women.

She and her son, Fela, were particularly close during these years. Fela, an internationally renowned musician, was often in trouble with various military governments during the 1970s due to the political critique in his music and his tremendous popularity with government opposition groups and the poor. He had been arrested and beaten many times. He owned a large compound in Lagos, which he had dubbed the Kalakuta Republic, and he operated a night club, The Shrine, in which international celebrities (such as Stevie Wonder and others) had performed. He had progressive left-of-center positions on such issues as universal provision of health care and education. But in contradistinction to his mother’s feminism, in a widely criticized move, he wed twenty-seven women at one time. Though FRK never publicly criticized Fela for this, her past criticism of polygyny and her own feminism must have found this unacceptable. She did, however, publicly support Fela’s protest and critique of military rule and neocolonialism.

In the early 1970s both she and Fela changed their last name from Ransome-Kuti to Anikulapo-Kuti. Anikujlapo is a Yoruba word signifying a warrior who carries powerful medicine in his or her pouch. This was a continuing significant expression by FRK of her devotion to indigenous culture and her opposition to neocolonialism.

In February 1977 soldiers attacked the Kalakuta Republic in an effort to once again punish Fela for the political messages of his music and his proclamations that the government would not dare touch him because he was beloved by the people. In the attack many people were wounded, women followers of Fela were raped, and FRK was thrown from a second-story window. At the time, she was nearly seventy-seven years old and her family and other observers maintain that she never recovered from the physical injuries and the psychological trauma of the attack. A little more than a year later, in April 1978, FRK died in a hospital in Lagos. Her daughter slept on the floor by FRKs bed for many nights, and her sons, both doctors, visited often and consulted about her case. On May 5, a motorcade bore FRK’s body to Abeokuta, where all the markets and shops closed for the day.

FRK was hailed in major Nigerian newspapers with headlines such as “The Voice of Women is Dead” and “The Defender of Women’s Rights is Dead.” She was called a progressive revolutionary, a Pan-Africanist visionary, and an anti-imperialist.33

FRK’s legacy is strong. The Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s book Ake: The Years of Childhood is considered by the Nigerian writer Ben Okri to immortalize FRK.34 In a December 20, 1985, article in the Chicago newspaper The Reader, an article lauding Fela’s protest music, said, “Fela . . . modeled himself on his mother, a freedom fighter in the struggle for independence and later a leader of the women’s suffrage movement.” And in a June 14, 1989, issue of The Guardian newspaper, there was a profile of Titilayo Ajanaku, chairperson of the Abeokuta Local Government Area, and the banner under her photo read “Another Mrs. Ransome-Kuti for Abeokuta.” These are but a few examples of the ways in which FRK is memorialized.

A few scholars have written of FRK and her roles in transnational feminism, the struggle for Nigerian independence, Pan-Africanism, and the development of a progressive left-of-center philosophy among women in Africa. But her life is still in the process of being mined to inform studies of African feminism and women’s roles in the anticolonial struggle, Nigerian nationalism, and Pan-Africanism—and the narratives of these struggles and philosophies will continue to be informed and complicated by her story.

Discussion of the Literature

The most comprehensive treatment of the life of FRK is Johnson-Odim and Mba’s book For Women and the Nation: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria (1997). Johnson-Odim and Mba both separately published article-length works in 1992: Johnson-Odim’s “On Behalf of Women and the Nation: Funmilayo Ransome -Kuti and the Struggles for Nigerian Independence and Women’s Equality” and Mba’s “Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti.”35 Also of importance is Johnson-Odim’s “‘For Their Freedoms’: The Anti-imperialist and International Feminist Activity of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria.”36 Since the above-mentioned publications (and in recent years), FRK has become one of the most cited anticolonial, feminist, and socialist (often described as left-wing) African women. This discussion of literature, however, will focus on the scholarship that takes FRK as a central focus rather than the many dissertations, articles, and reviews that primarily mention her influence or use her as a historical example, though she has proved to be one of the more important historical references.

To begin one might wish to consult the published works of FRK herself. The first was an article in the Daily Worker (London), August 18, 1947, “We Had Equality ’Til Britain Came,” in which she argued that colonialism was largely responsible for a diminution in the status of Nigerian women. She published a short report for Information Bulletin #33 (November 1948) for the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) chronicling the first protests she led in Abeokuta against women’s taxation. In the early 1950s she published in the magazine West Africa (London) “Women Should Play a Bigger Part in the Elections” (1951) and “Letter to the Editor” (1952). In 1954 she again wrote a short essay for the WIDF in their publication That They May Live: African Women Arise on women’s protests in Nigeria. She published a newspaper article “Women Are Used as Tools at Elections” in the Sunday Times newspaper (Lagos), June 2, 1957. Finally, she published an article in the Journal of Human Relations, “The Status of Women in Nigeria” (Autumn 1961).

In 1969 FRK appeared in the International Women’s Who’s Who, and there is an interesting profile of her in the Sunday Punch (Lagos) magazine of September 8, 1974. There is also a lengthy and very informative interview with FRK in the May 1975 issue of New Breed magazine (Lagos).

Wole Soyinka’s Ake: The Years of Childhood (1982), though a literary and not historical work, delivers much historical information about FRK and her leadership of the women of Abeokuta as Soyinka was her nephew and lived near her throughout her early organizing period and often ran errands for her and her women’s organizations. This book can be considered a primary source.

There are a number of encyclopedia entries, including biographical entries in African Biography (1999), New Encyclopedia of Africa (2008), Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora (2008), Oxford Encyclopedia in World History (2013), and Encyclopedia Britannica (2017). There is also a Wikipedia entry. FRK is cited in the online under the entry on “Feminism: Africa and African Diaspora.” In the UNESCO series on women in African history, there is a short, illustrated volume (meant for eight years–adult) by Obioma Ofoego (2015).

Among the most important of recent articles on FRK are Judith A. Byfield’s “In Her Own Words: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and the Auto/biography of an Archive” and Byfield’s “From Ladies to Women: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Women’s Political Activism in post WW II Nigeria.”37 Of some interest also is a July 2014 short essay “The Feminist” by Tanya Pampalone in the digital magazine Cityscapes because it discusses FRK’s life in the context of the proposal of the Nigerian government in 2012 to put FRK’s visage on a 5,000 naira note. This proposal was controversial because the family objected due to the role they felt the government (in the past) had played in persecuting FRK’s son, Fela, in the death of FRK, and in seizing Ransome-Kuti property in Lagos as a punishment for Fela’s anti-government protests.

In 2009 the Broadway play “Fela!” opened (based on the life of FRK’s son, musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti). It was a resounding commercial success and received eleven 2010 Tony nominations winning in the categories of Best Choreography, Best Costume Design of a Musical, and Best Sound Design of a Musical. I mention the play because of the strong influence FRK had on Fela and the fact that their close relationship was a centerpiece of the play’s plot. The play was another way in which the influence of FRK was publicized. The play was produced not only in New York, but there was a London production and a touring company that performed in Australia, Japan, and South Africa, among other places. And, in 2013 when the tour began, there were newspaper articles prominently mentioning FRK’s influence on Fela that appeared in The Financial Times (November 27, 2013), The New York Times (October 11, 2013), and The Washington Informer (February 2013: 48, no. 17).

Primary Sources

The best primary sources for work on the life of Funmilayo Ransome- Kuti (FRK) are archival, personal and organizational papers, and newspapers and magazines. The relevant archives are all in Nigeria in the cities of Abeokuta, Ibadan, and Lagos.

In Abeokuta the Egba Council Archives (in particular the minutes of the meetings of the Egba Native Authority, which subsequently became the Abeokuta District Council) and the records of the Abeokuta Women’s Union are important, as is the Elliot Commission File at the Abeokuta branch of the Nigerian National Archives.

The main branch of the Nigerian National Archives (NNA) in Ibadan holds several important sources including the files of the Chief Secretary’s Office, the Office of the Commissioner of the Colony of Lagos, the Abeokuta District Office, and the Abeokuta Provincial Office.

The most important personal and organizational primary sources are available in Ibadan, Lagos, and London. Of these, the most important are the personal papers of FRK herself and those of her husband, Reverend I. O. Ransome-Kuti, both housed in the Manuscripts Section at University of Ibadan Library. The Herbert Macaulay Papers, also housed in the Manuscripts Section University of Ibadan Library, are also helpful, as are the Ladipo Solanke Papers in the Gandhi Memorial Library at the University of Lagos. The Rhodes House Oxford the papers of Arthur Creech-Jones are somewhat helpful.

A number of newspapers published in in Lagos and London are important sources, particularly those editions published between 1940 and 1978. These include the Lagosian newspapers Daily Service, Daily Star, Daily Times, Guardian, Nigerian Tribune, Sunday Times, Daily Service, and West African Pilot; the Nigerian magazines New Breed and Nigerian Pioneer; and in London the Daily Worker and London Times newspapers, and the magazines West Africa and West Africa Review.

Further Reading

Byfield, Judith A. “From Ladies to Women: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Women’s Political Activism in Post WW II Nigeria.” In Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women. Edited by Mia Bay et al., 197–213. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.Find this resource:

    Byfield, Judith A. “In Her Own Words: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and the Auto/biography of an Archive.” Journal on Women, Gender and the Black International 5, no. 2 (2016): 107–127.Find this resource:

      Johnson-Odim, Cheryl. “‘For Their Freedoms’: The Anti-imperialist and International Feminist Activity of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria.” Women’s Studies International Forum 3 (2009): 51–59.Find this resource:

        Johnson-Odim, Cheryl, and Nina Mba, For Women and the Nation: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997.Find this resource:

          Johnson-Odim, Cheryl. “On Behalf of Women and the Nation: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and the Struggles for Nigerian Independence and Women’s Equality.” In Expanding the Boundaries of Women’s History, 144–157. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

            Mba, Nina “Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti.” In Nigerian Women in Historical Perspective. Edited by Bolanle Awe, 135–148. Lagos: Sankore Publishers and Bookcraft, 1992.Find this resource:


              (1.) For more historical information about this period of Yoruba history, see J. F. A. Ajayi and R. Smith, Yoruba Warfare in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1964).

              (2.) The information in this section on FRK’s Early Life is taken from Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Nina Mba, For Women and the Nation: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1997), chs. 1 and 2.

              (3.) March 25, 1919, letter from FRK to Reverend I. O. Ransome-Kuti in FRK Papers, University of Ibadan Archives.

              (4.) Daily Times newspaper, May 2, 1973.

              (5.) Information on education in England, marriage, and family from Johnson-Odim and Mba, For Women and the Nation, chs. 2 and 3; interviews with FRK in Abeokuta March 14 and 15, 1976, and April 6 and 13, 1976; interviews with Comfort Oluremi Adebayo in Ibadan on June 7 and 10, 1989; Johnson-Odim and Mba, For Women and the Nation, 175–178.

              (6.) Johnson-Odim and Mba, For Women and the Nation, 64–65.

              (7.) Wole Soyinka, Ake: The Years of Childhood (New York: Random House, 1981), 199–200.

              (8.) Clara Odugbesan, “Beere: The Achievements and Contributions of a Brave Nigerian Woman Leader,” manuscript dated May 11, 1968, in possession of author.

              (9.) Interview with FRK, April 6, 1976.

              (10.) Soyinka, Ake, 185 and 211.

              (11.) AWU Constitution in FRK Papers. See also Johnson-Odim and Mba, For Women and the Nation, 73.

              (12.) Vanguard newspaper, October 1, 1985; Johnson-Odim and Mba, For Women and the Nation, 76.

              (13.) Songs found in the FRK papers. See also Johnson-Odim and Mba, For Women and the Nation, 82–83.

              (14.) Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Nina Mba, For Women and the Nation: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997).

              (15.) Kenneth Little, African Women in Towns (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 72.

              (16.) The material for this section on leadership of women is taken from Johnson-Odim and Mba, For Women and the Nation, ch. 4.

              (17.) In an article in the May 1975 issue of New Breed magazine, FRK specifically commented that she believed in women’s liberation. See also Johnson-Odim and Mba, For Women and the Nation, 174.

              (18.) FRK’s report on Nigeria was first published in the WIDF Information Bulletin no. 33 in Budapest, subsequently in The Women of Asia and Africa: Documents (Budapest: Second World Congress of Women for Peace, 1948).

              (19.) See That They May Live: African Women Arise (Berlin: Women’s International Democratic Federation, 1954).

              (20.) Foster, Catherine (1989)

              (21.) This correspondence is in FRK’s papers (now housed at the University of Ibadan Archives).

              (22.) Johnson-Odim and Mba, For Women and the Nation, 55.

              (23.) Johnson-Odim and Mba, For Women and the Nation, 127.

              (24.) FRK speech to the FNWS Third Annual Conference, August 29, 1959. Copy in FRK papers.

              (25.) Johnson-Odim and Mba, For Women and the Nation, 110.

              (26.) Journal of Human Relations (August 1961): 68–72.

              (27.) Journal of Human Relations (August 1961): 68–72.

              (28.) The details of this are complicated but can be found in Johnson-Odim and Mba, For Women and the Nation, ch. 7.

              (29.) Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Margaret Strobel, Expanding the Boundaries of Women’s History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 155.

              (30.) Johnson-Odim and Strobel, Expanding the Boundaries, 155.

              (31.) Johnson-Odim and Strobel, Expanding the Boundaries, 155–156.

              (32.) See Johnson-Odim and Mba, For Women and the Nation, ch. 7, for details.

              (33.) See Daily Times, April 16 and April 18, 1976; Sunday Times, April 16, 1978.

              (34.) See review in the November 29, 1982, West Africa magazine.

              (35.) Johnson-Odim’s “On Behalf of Women and the Nation: Funmilayo Ransome -Kuti and the Struggles for Nigerian Independence and Women’s Equality,” in Expanding the Boundaries of Women’s History, eds. Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Margaret Strobel; and Mba’s “Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti,” in Nigerian Women in Historical Perspective, ed. Bolanle Awe (Lagos: Sankore Publishers and Bookcraft, 1992), 135–148.

              (36.) Johnson-Odim’s “‘For Their Freedoms’: The Anti-imperialist and International Feminist Activity of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria,” Women’s Studies International Forum 32 (2009).

              (37.) Judith A. Byfield, “In Her Own Words: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and the Auto/biography of an Archive,” A Journal on Women, Gender and the Black International 5, no. 2 (2016); and Byfield’s “From Ladies to Women: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Women’s Political Activism in Post WWII Nigeria,” in Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, eds. Mia Bay, Farah Griffin, Martha Jones and Barbara Savage (2015).