Frances Abigail Olufunmilayo Thomas was born on 25 October 1900, in Abeokuta.
She attended the Abeokuta Grammar school for secondary education, and later went to England for further studies. She soon returned to Nigeria and became a teacher. On 20 January 1925, she married the Reverend Israel Oludotun Ransome Kuti. He also defended the commoners of his country, and was one of the founders of both the Nigerian Union of Teachers and of the Nigerian Union of Students.
Funmilayo with the then prime minister, Tafawa Balewa
Ransome-Kuti received the national honor of membership in the Order of Nigeria in 1965. The University of Ibadan bestowed upon her the honorary doctorate of laws in 1968. She also held a seat in the Western House of Chiefs of Nigeria as an oloye of the Yoruba people.
Aside the fact that she is the first woman to ride a bicycle and then the first woman to drive a car in West Africa, Throughout her career, she was known as an educator and activist. She and Elizabeth Adekogbe provided dynamic leadership for women’s rights in the ’50s. She founded an organization for women in Abeokuta, with a membership tally of over 20 000 individuals spanning both literate and illiterate women.
Ransome-Kuti launched the organization into public consciousness when she rallied women against price controls which were hurting the female merchants of the Abeokuta markets. Trading was one of the major occupations of women in the Western Nigeria of the time. In 1949, she led a protest against Native Authorities, especially against the Alake of Egbaland. She presented documents alleging abuse of authority by the Alake, who had been granted the right to collect the taxes by his colonial suzerain, the Government of the United Kingdom. He subsequently relinquished his crown for a time due to the affair. She also oversaw the successful abolishing of separate tax rates for women. In 1953, she founded the Federation of Nigerian Women Societies which subsequently formed an alliance with the Women’s International Democratic Federation.
Funmilayo Ransome Kuti campaigned for women’s votes’ She was for many years a member of the ruling National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroon party, but was later expelled when she was not elected to a federal parliamentary seat. At the NCNC, she was the treasurer and subsequent president of the Western NCNC women’s Association. After her suspension her political voice was diminished due to the direction of national politics, as both of the more powerful members of the opposition, Awolowo and Adegbenro, had support close by. However, she never truly ended her activism. In the 1950s, she was one of the few women elected to the house of chiefs. At the time, this was one of her homeland’s most influential bodies.
She founded the Egba or Abeokuta Women’s Union along with Eniola Soyinka (her sister-in-law and the mother of the Noble Laureate Wole Soyinka). This organisation is said to have once had a membership of 20,000 women. Among other things, Fumilayo Ransom Kuti organised workshops for illiterate market women. She continued to campaign against taxes and price controls.
During the Cold War and before the independence of her country, Funmilayo Kuti travelled widely and angered the Nigerian as well as British and American Government by her contacts with the Eastern Bloc. This included her travel to the former USSR, Hungary and China where she met Mao Zedong. In 1956, her passport was not renewed by the government because it was said that “it can be assumed that it is her intention to influence … women with communist ideas and policies.” She was also refused a U.S. visa because the American government alleged that she was a communist.
Prior to independence she founded the Commoners Peoples Party in an attempt to challenge the ruling NCNC, ultimately denying them victory in her area. She got 4,665 votes to NCNC’s 9,755, thus allowing the opposition Action Group (which had 10,443 votes) to win. She was one of the delegates that negotiated Nigeria’s independence with the British government.
In old age her activism was over-shadowed by that of her three sons, who provided effective opposition to various Nigerian military juntas. In 1978, Funmilayo was thrown from a third-floor window,from her son Fela’s compound, a commune known as the Kalakuta Republic, was stormed by one thousand armed military personnel. She lapsed into a coma in February of that year, and died on 13 April 1978, as a result of her injuries.
Kuti was the mother of the activists Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a musician, Beko Ransome-Kuti, a doctor, and Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, a doctor and a former health minister of Nigeria. She is also the grandmother of musicians Femi Kuti and Seun Kuti.
One of her most popular quotes includes: For a long time you have used your penis as a mark of authority that you are our husband. Today we shall reverse the order and use our vagina to play the role of husband.”