When Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, “the best protection any woman can have is courage.” She was definitely right. In a world where many women never get to live up to their potentials because they’re expected to dim their light, there are many Nigerian women who have defied the odds by being brave and grabbing life by the horns. As a result, they have paved the way for generations of women to chase their dreams and fight for what they believe in.
It’s International Women’s Day 2020 and we join women and men around the world to celebrate this year’s theme #EachforEqual. Why #EachforEqual? Because an equal world is indeed an enabled world; a world of maximized potentials.
It is time to bid farewell to any form of misogyny and deal with every person as an individual and not through the eyes of a gender-coloured microscope. How can you do your bit to help advance the #EachforEqual cause? By raising awareness against bias in your community and taking conscious effort to promote equality at your workplace and other organizations you belong to.
As part of our efforts to help forge for a gender-equal world, we are celebrating the achievements of Nigerian women from different eras and walks of life. We all need to be reminded of the contributions of these strong and inspiring women to society and the advancement of Nigeria and the world at large.
Whether it’s in Science, Tech, Media, Law, Education, Politics, Entertainment, Pageantry or other sectors of society, celebrating the progress of Nigeria is incomplete without the celebration of the women who have broken through glass ceilings over the years.
This list is a celebration of a few of the many women who have passionately pursued their purpose and by doing so have helped raised generations of strong women.
Here are 20 of the most important women in Nigerian history…
#1. Agbani Darego
State of origin: Rivers State
Agbani Darego put Nigeria on the map when she became the first indigenous African Miss World in 2001. Prior to her Miss World win, at the Miss Universe competition, Agbani became the first Nigerian to place among the top 10 semi-finalists, finishing seventh overall. Her win as Miss World changed the narrative of beauty, especially for young Nigerian girls who became inspired to chase after their dreams no matter how lofty.
#2. Chimamanda Adichie
State of origin: Enugu State
Chimamanda has used her writing to change the stereotypical ways Africa was seen globally. Her works have helped inspire the younger generation to be interested in literary arts. As a feminist, she is globally vocal and uses her voice to stand for the rights of women. The fleet of awards she has received proves she knows her onions and the world knows this.
#3. Captain Chinyere Kalu
State of origin: Abia State
Every woman should never be stuck but should fly and soar. Captain Chinyere Kalu (née Onyenaucheya) set the pace by being the first female commercial pilot in Nigeria. In doing this, she literally gave Nigerian women wings to fly with the reminder that the sky is just the starting point.
#4. Chioma Ajunwa
State of origin: Imo State
Sometimes in life, you have to run not away but towards that hurdle. This motivational prelude perfectly introduces the swift Nigerian woman, Chioma Ajunwa who was the first African female to win an Olympic gold medal in 1996. This cop is still the only Nigerian gold medalist. You read right, Chioma is also a police officer. Such agility just couldn’t be put to rest.
#5. Prof. Dora Akunyili
State of origin: Benue State
This dogged and tenacious woman will always be remembered by Nigerians. After the death of Vivian her sister, who died after taking fake insulin injection in 1988, Dora took the fight against drug counterfeiters personally, so as to save other potential victims. As Director-General of NAFDAC, Prof. Akunyili fought against fake drugs and despite a number of physical attacks, criticisms and even attempted assassinations she kept up the good fight of justice.
Dora Akunyili passed on in June 2014 at 59.
#6. Florence Nwanzuruahu Nkiru Nwapa
State of origin: Imo State
The pen will always be a great weapon and Florence Nwapa proved it. She is referred to as the mother of modern African literature and the progenitor to Nigerian female writers. Her words gained global recognition in a male-dominated era and she became acknowledged as the first African woman novelist to be published in the English language in Britain.
Flora Nwapa passed on in October 1993 at 62.
#7. Chief Folake Solanke, SAN
State of origin: Ogun State
Chief Folake has had a remarkable career and has received numerous awards to that effect. According to Wikipedia `She is the first female Senior Advocate of Nigeria and the first Nigerian female lawyer to wear the silk gown as Senior Counsel. Additionally, she is the first Commissioner of Western State and is a former Chairperson of the Western Nigeria Television Broadcasting Corporation (WNTBC)” The list is endless and now you see why we can’t help but celebrate her.
#8. Funmilayo Ransom-Kuti
State of origin: Ogun State
Ever wondered about Afro-beat legend Fela’s courage and tenacity? He got it from his mama! Funmilayo was a trailblazer who dared to change the status quo. A practising feminist, educator, activist and the first Nigerian woman to drive a car. Even in death she still managed to pull a multitude to her funeral and expose corruption in government. Her activism helped embolden not just Nigerian women but women in Africa as a whole.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti passed on in April 1978 at 77.
#9. Grace Alele Williams
State of origin: Delta State
Anyone who has been in the Nigerian university system would know that being a Vice-Chancellor is not child’s play. Professor Grace is the first female V.C in Nigeria – University of Benin. As her name implies, she carried out her responsibility gracefully and has contributed greatly to the advancement of education in Nigeria.
#10. Laila Dongoyaro
State of origin: Jigawa State
This daring trailblazer was an advocate for young women, especially in northern Nigeria. She got married off at the young age of 13 and this shaped her life. She was a founding member of Jam’iyyar Matan Arewa, a women’s group affiliated with Northern People’s Congress with a focus on the welfare of poor families in Northern Nigeria communities. The organization established schools, WAEC centres and gave support to women’s suffrage in the region.
Dogonyaro would launch her political career in 1977 when she contested for an election in the Tundun Wada Constituency. Her legacy will forever outlive her.
#11. Mama Ekundayo
State of origin: Kogi State
Mama Ekundayo was an epitome of intangible wealth, her heart was made of gold. Her passion for children was remarkable as she cared for over 500 orphans as a regular citizen. She impacted the lives of Nigerians with her orphanage located in Kogi state so much that it earned her the name “Mother Theresa Of Africa.’‘ She will forever be in our hearts.
Mama Ekundayo passed on in 2009.
#12. Margaret Ekpo
State of origin: Anambra
How many people would go to prison for three years and remain unwavered? One of such people is Magaret Ekpo. When you see a Nigerian woman in politics now, you should remember to say thank you to Magaret Ekpo. As Nigeria’s first female political activist she paved the way for women whose place was confined to the “other room” to become recognized in politics and society at large.
#13. Mary Onyali-Omagbemi
State of origin: Adamawa State
If medals were water droplets, Mary Onyali would have a river. She is one of the best sprinters Nigeria has ever produced and the first Nigerian to compete at five Olympics. Her story brings great hope to struggling Nigerian women who feel like throwing in the towel as she stayed dedicated to her passion.
#14. Mosunmola Abudu
State of origin: Ondo State
Mosunmola Abudu, simply known as Mo Abudu, is a Nigerian media mogul, media personality, philanthropist and TV show host. Mo Abudu’s Moments with Mo, a TV show that cuts across every sphere of life has hosted many celebrities and even the 67th US Secretary-of-State Hilary Clinton. She has since expanded from that to own a TV channel, Ebony Life TV and a movie production company, Ebony Life Films. Mo who chaired the 47th Emmy Awards was the first African to receive the MIPTV Médailles d’Honneur in 2019 and has also been featured on Forbes as one of Africa’s Most Successful Women. Famous Nigerian women 2021.
#15. Oluchi Onweagba-Orlandi
State of origin: Abia State
Oluchi is Nigeria’s first supermodel and has strutted the runway for top designers all over the globe. She’s also posed for some of the most celebrated photographers and graced major advertising campaigns around the world. Her success on the global scene has contributed to the rise of the Nigerian fashion industry and the birth of many successful Nigerian and African international models.
#16. Onyeka Onwenu
State of origin: Obosi, Anambra State
Onyeka Onwenu wears many career hats but we can’t forget her songs from the 80s and 90s. She has since evolved into a strong voice in the entertainment industry. She created awareness for royalties to be paid to artists and this has made a major impact in the Nigerian music industry. This list wouldn’t be complete without this gracious veteran.
#17. Sandra Aguebor-Ekperuoh
State of origin: Edo State
In a time when women were expected to sit pretty and be kept, Sandra fought to break stereotypes in a male-dominated industry. As the first female mechanic, Sandra has fixed the lives of about 700 women by empowering them to become mechanics as a means of financial stability. She deserves every accolade and recognition.
#18. Dr Stella Ameyo Adadevoh
State of origin: Lagos State
We often hear that medicine is a calling. Doctor Ameyo proved that right. She gave herself as a sacrifice for the whole country at the forefront of the team that controlled the spread of Ebola in Nigeria. Unfortunately, she died from the disease in August 2014.
#19. Madam Udo Udoma
State of origin: Akwa Ibom State
If you’re going to fight for equal rights, you must be courageous and have iron hands. How else can you explain breaking a gun into two? Adrenaline? We think Madam Udo possessed much more than that. One of the fiercest protests against colonial rule was started by women in Ikot Abasi, Akwa Ibom and Madam Udo led the women who protested against the colonial policy which imposed more taxes on women for their domestic animals, household utensils and more.
Madam Udo Udoma would break the gun of one of the officers who charged at the women protesters and lost her life in the protest. This protest became known as the Aba women’s riot of 1929, but should indeed have been called the Ikot Abasi Women’s Riot.
#20. Virginia Etiaba
State of origin: Anambra State
Even in 2020, it is still rare to have a female governor. This amazon became the first female governor in Nigeria from November 2006 to February 2007. Virginia was the governor of Anambra state and was instated as the previous governor, Peter Obi, was impeached by the state legislature for alleged gross misconduct. She transferred power back to Obi three months later when an appeal court nullified the impeachment.
Although her tenure lasted for just three months, it was a major step in the right direction for Nigerian women in politics.
These famous Nigerian women have made positive change way beyond themselves and their legacies will forever outlive them.
Happy International Women’s Day!
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