IWD: Women who broke glass ceilings
By Josephine Agbonkhese
Throughout history, there have been extraordinary women who pushed society to dream bigger, to move forward, and to create a better future.
These foremothers who paved the way in different professions and endeavours, showed that a woman belonged in every field.
In honour of Women’s History Month, we celebrate ten Nigerian historic firsts that broke barriers so that other women could dare to dream.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti: First Female to Drive a Car
Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, also known as Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, was an educator and a political activist. She is regarded as the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria. She was the mother of great Nigerian music legend and activist, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Born on October 25, 1900 in Abeokuta, Ogun State, she founded the Absolute Ladies Club (later the Abeokuta Women’s Union) committed to defending women’s political, social and economic rights, which became one of the most important women’s movement of the twentieth century.
She served with distinction as one of the most prominent leaders of her generation. She passed on, on April 13, 1978 at the age of 77.
Margaret Ekpo, First Female Activist
Chief Margaret Ekpo was one of the leading figures in Nigeria’s fight for democracy; a feminist politician, teacher, activist and trade union leader.
An Eastern Region Advisor, in the 1950s, she spearheaded several protests in the country.
As a leader of the Aba Township Women’s Association which she founded one year after her nomination to the Regional House of Chiefs in 1953, she was able to garner the women’s trust, and turned it into a political pressure group. By 1955, women in Aba had outnumbered men voters in a city-wide election. A hero to a generation of men and women, she invested her time raising political awareness about universal adult suffrage, women’s education and independence from oppressive colonial rule.
Ekpo was detained by Biafran authorities for three years in prison during the Nigerian Civil War. She died in 2006.
To immortalize her name, Cross River State government renamed Calabar Airport, the Margaret Ekpo International Airport.
Adetoun Ogunsheye, First Female Professor
Professor Adetoun Ogunsheye is the first female professor of Library Science in Nigeria. Adetoun who is remarkably the first woman to become a professor in Nigeria, is also believed to be the first female to attend Yaba Higher School, now Yaba College of Technology. The retired professor turned 95 last December 2021.
She was a foundation student of University College Ibadan, from where she got a scholarship to Cambridge University as the first Nigerian female student. Adetoun was also the best graduating female student in her class.
She has received numerous awards and holds the Chieftaincy title of ‘Iyalaje of Ile-Oluji’ .
Grace Alele Williams:First Female Vice Chancellor
Grace Alele-Williams was the first Nigerian to be awarded a doctorate. She became a professor of Mathematical Education, then the first female Nigerian Vice-Chancellor of the University of Benin.
She has held and served in various capacities. By serving in various committees and boards, Alele-Williams has made useful contributions in the development of education in Nigeria
Professor Alele-Williams was a force to reckon with in the dark period of Nigeria’s higher education. Then, the activities of secret cults, confraternities and societies had spread within the Nigerian universities.
Chief Folake Solanke: First Female SAN
Chief Folake Solanke (born 29 March, 1932), SAN, CON, is a Nigerian lawyer, administrator, and social critic. She is the first female Senior Advocate of Nigeria and the first Nigerian female lawyer to wear the silk gown as Senior Counsel.
Armed with a diploma certificate in Education in 1955, in 1960, she proceeded to study law at Gray’s Inn, London, where she graduated with a degree in law in 1962.
Chief Coker’s career as a legal practitioner has spanned over decades. She has received both international and national recognition as a writer and an advocate for women’s rights and equality.
Mayen Adetiba: First Female Engineer
When engineering was still perceived as the boys’ club in the 70’s, the only black girl studying for a degree in Civil Engineering in one of the world’s most respected institutions, Columbia University, USA, was a Nigerian. That girl is Mayen Adetiba, an icon who has led the engineering profession at different times, both in Nigeria and beyond.
A former President of the Association of Consulting Engineers of Nigeria and three-time Vice-President of the Nigeria Society of Engineers, NSE, Adetiba has also presided over the African regional body of the International Association of Consulting Engineers.
She is also Chartered Secretary-General of the Association of Professional Women Engineers in Nigeria, APWEN. She was the first female to be elected into the executive committee of the NSE.
Justice Aloma Marian Mukhtar, First Female Chief Justice
Born in 1944, Justice Aloma Marian Mukhtar is a jurist and former Chief Justice of Nigeria.
In her career, Mukhtar has been many firsts: first female lawyer from Northern Nigeria, first female Judge of the High Court in Kano State judiciary, first female Justice of the Court of Appeal of Nigeria, first female justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, and the first female Chief Justice of Nigeria in July 2012.
Honourable Justice Aloma Mukhtar was one of the three Justices of the Supreme Court who took a dissenting stance in the 2007 Presidential election dispute on the grounds of substantial non-compliance with the Electoral Act 2006, which should have nullified the election of Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
Since leaving office as CJN, she has joined Nigeria’s highest advisory body, the National Council of State as its first female permanent member.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, First Female WTO Director-General
In March 2021, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became the first ever female Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Born 1954, Okonjo-Iweala studied at Harvard and earned a Ph.D at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1981. She spent 25 years at the World Bank, rising to the No.2 position as Managing Director (2007-2011).
A two-time Finance Minister (2003-2006 and 2011-2015), she is the first woman to hold the position.
In 2006, she served briefly as Foreign Minister, making her the first woman to do so.
She sits on the boards of Twitter, Standard Chartered Bank and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI).
Chioma Ajunwa: First Female to win an Olympic Gold Medal in Track and Field Event
Chioma Ajunwa-Opara, born 25 December 1970, is a former athlete notable for being the first Nigerian to win a gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. That made her the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal in a field event. Ajunwa is also a member of the Nigerian Police Force and currently, an Assistant Commissioner in the Lagos State Police Command. She remains the only woman to compete at both the FIFA Women’s World Cup as a footballer and the Olympics as a track and field athlete.
In December 2017, Ajunwa launched the Chioma Ajunwa-Okpara Foundation, to discover new Nigerian stars in sports.
Ajunwa was the Chairperson, Women’s Development Committee of Imo State Football Association.
Agbani Darego, First Female African to win Miss World
Agbani Darego was crowned Miss World in 2001, making her the first black woman from an African country ever to win the pageant. Before then, she had won national beauty pageants such as Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria, among others. Darego spent much of her Miss World year making public appearances around the globe and serving as an unofficial ambassador for her country, and even her continent.
She was born to the family of Asenite Darego in 1982, in Abonnema, Rivers State.
Agbani attended New York University where she studied Psychology, graduating in May 2012.