Encyclopedia Womannica

Leaders: Taytu Betul

Episode Summary

Taytu Betul (c. 1850-1917 ) was the empress of Ethiopia.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Leader was a brilliant political and military mind who successfully beat back the European Imperialists trying to take over her country, and then led her people through a successful era of modernization. Let’s talk about Empress of Ethiopia, Taytu Betul.

Taytu, which is the Amharic word for “sun”, was born around 1850 in Debre Tabor, Ethiopia into a regionally powerful family in the north of the country.

There’s no record of Taytu ever attending school or receiving any sort of formal education, but she was taught to read and write in Amharic, which would have been unusual for women of the time. It’s also believed that she was taught the basics of power politics and diplomacy. She understood Ge'ez, a language used in the Ethiopian Orthodox church, and was apparently a very talented chess player.

When Teytu was 10 years old, she was married off to her first husband, who was an officer in the army. She would marry two more times before finally marrying her fourth and final husband, King Menelik of Shewa, soon to be Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia.

Taytu was over 30 years old when the two were married, making her an extremely old bride in Ethiopian marriage norms at the time. Still, the two were believed to be a very good match and extremely well-suited for each other.

After being named Emperor and Empress of Ethiopia in 1889, Taytu started wielding considerable power. She and Menelik fell into a routine where he would regularly avoid taking unpopular stances that would anger his constituents, allowing Taytu to step in and put her foot down, at which point he would have to go along with his wife. It was a basic good cop/bad cop routine.

Taytu had a brilliant, savvy mind and became her husband’s most important advisor in public and private. She was always consulted before any important decision was made.

Taytu was also one of the first Ethiopians to realize that Italy had imperialist designs on the country. Italy had previously made overtures of friendship, but Taytu came to understand that their plans were much more problematic. She called the Italians out on it, saying “You want other countries to see Ethiopia as your protege, but that will never be.”

By the time relations between Ethiopia and Italy broke down in 1891, Taytu was essentially running the show and refused to concede any territory to the invasive Europeans. She put a stop to any negotiations that would have resulted in the loss of land to the Italians.

When negotiations came to a halt, war broke out between the two countries. Taytu rode out by her husband’s side at the head of their army. She was deeply involved in military planning from day one.

Taytu personally put together the battle plan that led to the Ethiopian victory at Makalle, and it’s said that her presence at the 1896 Battle of Adwa was crucial to the Ethiopian victory over the Italians. 

Adwa is generally considered the most significant victory of an African army over a European army during the apex of European Imperialism. It was a humiliating defeat for the Italians, and ended up having rather far reaching consequences for Italy moving forward.

After the Italian threat was squashed, Taytu and Menelik founded the city of Addis Ababa, which remains the capital of Ethiopia to this day. Taytu herself actually chose the site for the future city.

In the last few decades of her reign, Taytu was a force of modernization and eventually opened up Ethiopia to greater trade and technology. She also financed the construction of a number of well-known and impressive churches throughout Ethiopia.

As Menelik’s health disintegrated,  Taytu wielded more and more power and authority. This did not end well for her -- eventually public discontent forced her to step down.

Taytu died in 1917. She was around 67 years old.

As always, we’re taking a break for the weekend. Tune in on Monday for the story of another Leader. If you like what we do, please rate and review the show wherever you listen. It’s really helpful and makes it easier for others to find us. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you on Monday!