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Ethiopia’s First Female Head Of State

As Ethiopia Welcomes their first female president - Sahle Zewde, It’s important to remember her historical predecessor. Empress Zewditu was the first female head of an internationally recognized state and was both the first and the last empress regnant of the Ethiopian empire.

Empress Zewditu I with Regent Ras Tafari Makonnen. Photo: Wiki/In the public domain in the United States

Empress Zewditu whose name means “the crown” was an ambivalent leader known for her staunch conservatism and religious devotion who ruled Ethiopia from 1916-1930. She was the eldest daughter of the then Negus (King) Menelik ll of Shewa.

There are various accounts of Empress Zewditu’s life, many of which contrast between historical scholars, but what is universally agreed upon, though, is that Empress Zewditu named Ras Tafari king, and he later became known as Haile Selassie.


At the tender age of 10 she was married off to Ras Araya Selassie Yohannes, son and heir of emperor Yohannes IV. The political marriage was arranged when Menelik (here father) agreed to submit to Yohannes’ rule and ended two years later in 1888 when Ras selassie died. Although relations between her father and her father-in-law were strained, emperor Yohannes IV sent Zewditu back to Shewa region (Birth place) with valuable cattle as a testament of his affection for her.

Under her official title “Queen of Kings”, Zewditu’s rule became a regency. The Empress was not allowed to exercise power so instead, her cousin Ras Tafari Mekonnen was appointed regent.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=40&v=pk-a27wM0gw)

The contrast however between the two principles was glaringly evident: Ras Tafari Mekonnen backed by the nobles was a modernizer who believed Ethiopia needed to embrace the world and to open their gates and practice foreign affairs relationship worldwide, while Empress Zewditu back by the church was a conservative who wanted to preserve Ethiopian tradition and self identity.

But as Zewditu faded from active politics and got deeper into the religion, Ras Tafari Mekonnen led Ethiopia into the League of Nations and the abolish of slavery. Due to his reforms a number of attempts were made to replace him but the Empress remained in avid support of him despite their differences.

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Photo credits: Rod Waddington, Jasmine Halki, D. Stanley, Ninara, John Iglar, Ralf Steinberger, Matt Price, Jean Rebiffé, Richard Mortel

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