Throughout the rich history of Ethiopia, the country has been faced with existential crises and wars by foreign invaders. Through strength and determination, Ethiopia repelled every foreign attempt of subjugation against it. These Ethiopian patriots during these wars weren’t just men, but women as well who served in the highest roles in the army. Ethiopian women looked fear and death in the face and smiled knowing they were engaging in their national duty of protecting the motherland.  

Woizero Abebech was one of the most famous female commanders of not only Ethiopia but Africa as well. Already the wife of a senior commander, she took it upon herself to uphold Ethiopia’s sovereignty by bearing arms. She was responsible for the inception of the ‘Ethiopian Women’s Military Movement.’

She urged and helped motivate workmen who weren’t on the front to supply the troops, learn combat medicinal techniques, and care for the refugees inside and outside of Ethiopia’s territorial control who were affected by the brutal East African Campaign. Newspapers in the United States and the United Kingdom covered her valor. Woizero was quoted on her leadership of the Women’s Movement: “Sisters, we need to study military science, learn how to fight with a rifle, a machine gun, a knife, so we can help our loved ones fight against a cruel enemy.” 

Prior to the Second Ethiopian-Italian War, over 20,000 to 30,000 women served in the front lines of Adwa in 1896, the famous battle that brought Ethiopia into world attention and prestige. Empress Taitu, the wife of Emperor Menelik II, personally commanded a contingent of 5,000 soldiers and 600 cavalrymen during the Battle of Adwa. 

The role of women in war even goes back to the late 17th century, making Ethiopia one of the first states to have women serve in major combat operations. Emperor Isayu issued a proclamation in 1691 on women in the Abyssinian army: “The king had the herald proclaim that the girls of the country must not ride Astride mules, because at this time these girls had adopted the practice of doing so, tightening the belts of their shirts, covering their heads with their shammas and holding a long spear in their hand, marching in expeditions like men.” 

An excerpt from the Habesha Adventure stated the following about the integration of women fighting alongside men in the Abyssinian Army:

When the Ethiopian army was walking with its fallen brother and in front of him, thousands of Ethiopian fighters were jumping on the top of the mountain, jumping, arguing and jumping. When they saw the endless flood of army, they smiled and turned to me and said, ‘You see, this is how Ethiopian is fighting’. Every Ethiopian is a hero since born, every Ethiopian is a warrior. It is, once a battle they told me that there is no power that can stop on earth if it enters inside. And in the battlefield below, Ethiopian soldiers are tearing the chest of the enemy and stabbing the neck of the throats. After a while, it seems that Ethiopians who were in victory are being killed by 3 tanks. When the victory was raining towards the Italians, I saw an old man turning his face and running to the tanks. At first, about 100, then thousands of Ethiopians followed the old man. Italian tanks continued to lie down the first row Ethiopians. But Ethiopians. The corpse of their heroes. Even though it was a little bit more, they pushed the dead bodies of their fallen heroes forward. 

Even though some Ethiopians are trying to shoot their tanks very close to the tanks, the steel-wearing tanks have moved forward without any mercy on the brave Ethiopians. In the meantime, the heat of Tenben forced the tankers to open the upper entrance gate. The Ethiopian heroes who saw this wide hole, started throwing them into the tank. After a few minutes, the first tank turned its voice off. The remaining 2 tanks who saw the fate of the first tank turned their faces and started to go to the army. One of the 2 tanks in the hospital, she stopped looking at the tank. The 3rd tank escaped. Ethiopian heroes had 1 hour in the middle of the hour, wearing a white sheet, and were thrown at the top of the tank. The third tank was missing. Ethiopian heroes were in empty hands, in war and in their hands, 2 in their hands. Get it in … “- Habesha Adventure, Czech born engineer Adolph Parlesak, AU Press published, page 173-177.

Patriot Abebech riding to the front line in 1935/1936 G.C. (Public Domain photo)

Woizero Felekech – a 60-year-old veteran who reportedly killed about 50 Italians at Adwa. The European press of that era had reported that she formally asked Emperor Haile Selassie I for arms so that she will fight the Italians again in the Ogaden in 1935. In this photo, she is seen while practicing shooting. (Public Domain photo)

Empress Taitu, the wife of Emperor Menelik II who commanded a large garrison at the Battle of Adwa. Photo: Public Domain