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A Woman of Independent Upbringing Writes About a Kindred Spirit From Ethiopia

January 29, 1987|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

When she was a little girl growing up in Pasadena 50 years ago, Chris Prouty picked up the basics of adventure and independence from spinster schoolteachers and visiting missionaries.

Their influence has followed her everywhere she has lived since--Europe, Tanzania, India and Ethiopia--and through the 20 years she spent researching and writing a book about a powerful yet little-known African empress.

Prouty's aunt, Mabel Gilchrist Montgomery, who all her working life taught first and second grades in Webster Elementary School in Pasadena, whetted the writer's appetite for adventure.

It was from this maiden aunt, her teacher friends and the missionaries who spoke at the Disciples of Christ Church that Prouty said she learned "women could do anything they wanted to. You could be anything. There were never any limits."

These women were independent and smart, they traveled freely, they enjoyed life and they became Prouty's models.

As far out as that was for Pasadena in the 1930s and '40s, Prouty saw some of the same kind of strength and independence in Empress Taytu, who 100 years ago helped to shape modern Ethiopia.

Prouty was in Pasadena last week to speak at a seminar on African studies at Caltech and to promote her book. She and her husband, Eugene Rosenfeld, now retired from the U. S. Information Service, live in Washington, D. C.

Taytu, Prouty said, was on the battlefront commanding a women's hospital corps in 1896 when Ethiopia defeated Italy, the first time an European army was defeated by Africans.

"That defeat was shocking in Europe, which was in the middle of its colonization march," she said.

Prouty said Taytu was the first to call for education outside the church in Ethiopia, instigated the education of women, participated in the reform of marriage laws and began a candle industry. She named the city of Addis Ababa and established its first hotel.

She was said to be smarter than her husband, Menilek II. She was educated, she wrote poetry, she was suspicious of foreigners and was "a very tough lady." She was not altogether likable, "but I never lost my admiration for her," Prouty said.

Although the most powerful woman in Africa in her time, she was unknown to most of the world, and Prouty learned of her almost by accident.

She and her husband thought they were settled for a long-term stint with the Information Service in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1965 when they received orders to move immediately to Ethiopia.

"I woke up one morning in Ethiopia and I didn't know where I was," she said.

After resettling and entering their four children in school, Prouty decided to get acquainted with her new home by enrolling in a course in modern Ethiopian history at Addis Ababa University. There she first heard of Taytu and chose her as the subject for a term paper.

The paper never got written because Prouty got hooked on Ethiopian history and plunged into research that consumed hundreds of hours in libraries in several countries.

"Empress Taytu and Menilek II: Ethiopia 1883-1910" is her major work, published late last year by the Red Sea Press in New Jersey. Preceding it were the "Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia," co-authored with Rosenfeld, and "A Chronology of Menilek II: 1844-1913."

The biography of Taytu reveals an unusual woman who "has been slighted in other accounts of this important period of Ethiopian history," according to Richard Pankhurst, former director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa.

Zewde Gabre-Sellassie, former deputy prime minister and foreign minister of Ethiopia, called Prouty's book "sound scholarship" about the empress who was "the most powerful woman on the continent of Africa in her time."

"You can count on the fingers of one hand the books written about African women," Prouty said.

She believes that her mission to correct this slight can be attributed in part to her Aunt Mabel, who maintained a lively interest in church and travel and raised Prouty after the child was orphaned at age 4. Prouty's aunt died in 1983 at the age of 89.

From this background, Prouty said she learned independence, becoming a "latchkey child" and a feminist before such terms had been created.

She was president of the women students at Pasadena Junior College (now Pasadena City College) in 1940, "a big number in the drama department," and on the committee to choose the royal court for the Tournament of Roses.

When she left for Antioch College in Ohio the next year, she said she went only for adventure and without any scholarly intentions.

"But I did cherish the notion of knowing more than anyone about some one thing," she said.

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