Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti is often mostly remembered as the first woman (allegedly) to drive a car in Nigeria, or as the mother of Afrobeat maestro Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
However, what she truly lived for, was seeing women break free. She breathed women’s rights, and she worked tirelessly to uplift women in every way she could. Many have fought relentlessly for the emancipation of women from every form of oppression, but the Lioness of Lisabi is in a class of her own.
Today, on International Women’s Day 2017, we remember FRK:
- For teaching women.
Even while she was yet a student at Abeokuta Grammar School, she taught the younger girls. She was a strong believer in the power of education, not as a cure-all, but as a way to be empowered. Her eagerness to share all she knew led her to start a social club where young ladies could learn social graces, etiquette, and handicrafts. She had a friend who “read” her hymn book upside down, and another who kept buying newspapers, looking forward to the day when she would learn how to read. In 1944, FRK started teaching both of them to read. Before long, more illiterate women wanted in, and FRK’s Abeokuta Ladies Club started offering literacy classes. She studied abroad and was part of the city’s elite, but she did not sit and cross her arms. She may not have showered them with money, but she gave them a more powerful gift. She empowered them to educate themselves, by teaching them how to read. What can we learn from Funmilayo’s spirit? How can you lift up and empower one woman today? Can we claim to have women’s rights at heart if we do nothing with what we have?
FRK was a British educated, financially independent woman. She could have turned her face and sipped her tea. Instead, she fought for (women).
- For standing up to oppressors.
She was not called a lioness for anything. Before her activism days, the government was taking market women’s rice without paying. Taxes for women – who were taxed separately from their husbands irrespective of the family’s source of income – were being increased arbitrarily and without consideration. The tax collectors would strip girls and check their breasts to see if they were old enough to pay the tax. Any woman who was unable to pay was jailed, making it impossible for her to earn money to pay. Oh, the women were greatly oppressed! Who will speak for us? FRK was a British educated, financially independent woman. She could have turned her face and sipped her tea. Instead, she fought for them. She started the Abeokuta Women’s Union to give the women a voice. As their spokesperson, she boldly called for the abdication of the corrupt Alake who was exploiting not just women but the people as a whole the people. Through mass protests and partnership with the press in Nigeria and UK, Funmilayo called attention to the plight of the women in Abeokuta. She identified with the women. She stopped wearing European clothing and started wearing traditional Yoruba attire. She started giving her speeches in Yoruba, forcing the British to seek the services of a translator. And she, along with the women, was victorious. The fight was fierce, and their victory hard won, but they got everything they asked for. Funmilayo did not become a leader by aspiring to power, she became one by serving those less privileged than herself. If all women are not free, are any of us really free?
- For being inclusive.
Every woman matters. Every woman mattered to FRK.
Everything she started, began with a small demographic, but she always allowed it grow to include other women. Even her Abeokuta Ladies’ Club that started as a meeting of “gown wearers” evolved to include “wrapper wearers”.
The success of the Abeokuta Women’s Union in overthrowing the corrupt Alake and improving the standard of living for women in Abeokuta would have led many a leader to a place of complacency, but not FRK. She proposed the expansion of the AWU: if they could achieve this in their city, then every woman in Nigeria could be free from oppression, and empowered. The Nigerian Women’s Union was born, and as the AWU became NWU Abeokuta branch, so did the women’s unions in other parts of Nigeria become branches of NWU.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti taught women- from etiquette and reading, to how to protect oneself from tear gas and how to throw gas canisters back. She pushed fear aside and spoke the truth bravely. She remains an amazing inspiration, the personification of boldness for change. Did the oppressors try to intimidate her? Yes. Did she cower? No. Was it always easy? Certainly not!
She didn’t merely pay lip service. She courageously took action, and she stood her ground.
Will you #BeBoldForChange?