In honor of International Women’s Month, we want to give you a closer look at some of the women who were involved in various aspects of the war effort. The photos you see, unless otherwise noted, come from the private collection of Maaza Mengiste, whose novel, The Shadow King, tells the story of this war and those who lived through it.  These photos and the novel are only a few of the many, many stories that exist. 


As 1935 opened, the world was already starting to pay attention to the rising tensions between Italy and Ethiopia.

New York Times, May 5, 1935
New York Times, August 2, 1935

Some Ethiopian women were helping the Red Cross.

In other parts of the country, deep in the interior, life was going on as normal.

Yet as armies began to mobilize, some women also enlisted. 

New York Times, September 11, 1935
New York Times, November 21, 1935
Umteteli Wa Bantu, April 25, 1936
Bogalech, Debre Birhan, c. 1937
Weizero Abebech Cherkos, Addis Ababa, 1935
Back of Weizero Abebech's photo.
(Click to enlarge)
Back of Weizero Abebech's photo. (Click to enlarge)

a story...

My great-grandmother, Getey, was a young girl in 1935. When Haile Selassie sent out an announcement ordering the eldest from each family to enlist in the army because of the expected war with Italy, Getey said she would go to represent her family. She was the first born of four children. She was in an arranged marriage, but too young to live with her adult husband as his wife, so she still lived at home. Her father objected to her wish to enlist. Instead, he said he would give his gun to her husband and he would represent the family. Getey disagreed with this arrangement, and she took her father to court. She pled her case before the village elders and won. She was given her father’s gun, and she went to enlist in the war.

Story submitted by Maaza Mengiste

Getenesh 'Getey' Woldegabriel

Simien Shewa, near Alem Ketema, 1935

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste tells the story of some of these women who joined the army.
Two of the characters in the novel were inspired by photographs from Maaza’s collection.


Excerpt of novel:
(a section when Hirut and Aster listen to Empress Menen give a radio address) p. 73

Hirut stares at the radio, at the large black knob and the jittery dial that is possessed by the princess’s breaths. She is spellbound trying to decipher how it is possible to hear this woman and this girl so clearly from far away. They are closer than the echo of drums that ricochet through the hills when there is news. They are here, but they are not here.

We are confident that women everywhere have the same desire in maintaining world peace and love.

The radio’s speaker is an arch of mesh, like a webbed sun. She is so close that she can feel the warm hum of it, can almost sense the empress and princess like two solid blocks of light spinning in a place where voices travel faster than flesh. Somewhere in there, past the wood and the mesh and the knob and the glass that holds the nervous dial in place, there is a royal woman who has moved outside of herself and become both vast and invisible, mighty as wind. Lost in thought, mesmerized and awestruck, it isn’t until she feels Aster nudge her leg that Hirut turns around to see what has happened.

We all know that war destroys mankind, and in spite of their differences in race, creed, and religion, women all across the world despise war because its fruit is nothing but destruction.

Aster is dressed in the tunic and jodhpurs, the stained cape across her shoulders, a new rifle slung against her back. The aged cape falls in folds, hanging in such a way that Hirut can tell it was cured by the surest hands, expertly rubbed and oiled to lie close against a body and mold to its owner’s shape. Aster shifts the new rifle from her left shoulder to her right while her legs stay firm and strong beneath her. She is resplendent. She is a fearsome and shocking figure, something both familiar and foreign, frightening and incomprehensible. A woman dressed as a warrior, looking as fierce as any man.

All photos on this page come from the private collection of Maaza Mengiste. Videos on this page are displayed by the kind permission of British Pathé.