The life of a 17th-century Ethiopian nun—Walatta Petros (1592-1642) – provides an early instance of feminist action against church authorities.
When Portuguese Jesuits tried to convert Ethiopians from their more ancient form of Christianity, Walatta Petros, a noblewoman and wife of one of the Emperor’s counsellors left her husband, already a convert and her social inferior, to become a nun, and began establishing religious communities to lead a non-violent movement against the intruders.
The proto-colonial intruders set foot in Ethiopia in 1557 filled with missionary zeal. When finally they were banished by the king in 1633 they blamed the failure of their mission on opposition from Ethiopian noblewomen, most of whom preferred to leave their husbands rather than convert to Catholicism.
Whilst Walatta Petros was exemplary she was not unique. She was in conflict with leadership throughout her life—her husband, her brother, the king, the Jesuit patriarchy, her jailer during her several spells in jail, and male leaders in the locations where she established each of her seven communities.
Although her main weapons were argument and logic, Walatta Petros was responsible for a number of unostentatious miracles such as –sudden acquisition of foreign languages, recovering lost books, and banishing locust epidemics. The Virgin Mary miraculously stopped her periods, at her request, at the age of 39. Her life-long partner on her escape from her marriage was another nun, Eheta Kristos.
Her disciples -many of them women-wrote a biography thirty years after her death describing her as “an adored daughter, the loving friend of women, a devoted reader, an itinerant preacher, and radical leader”.
She was elevated to sainthood in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
(Galadewos, translated by Wendy Laura Belcher & Michael Kleiner (2015) Princeton: Princeton University Press.)