March 6, 2020
Celebrating one of the strong women in the Purim story
On International Women’s Day, and on the eve of Purim, we look at one of the powerful women in the Book of Esther, as a pioneer of feminism and women’s activism to break the status quo.
In the Book of Esther – the text that is read on the Jewish holiday of Purim – we encounter two queens: Queen Esther and Vashti. Queen Esther, associated with saving the Jewish people, is the most famous of the two. But Vashti, whilst her story is smaller, provides us with a strong contemporary lesson around how women’s actions can be perceived, and a lesson in feminism.
Vashti is seen by some as irrelevant to the story. Others, including leading Babylonian Rabbis, have seen her character as vain, and greedy. But, there are those who have gone so far as to claim Vashti was the first feminist.
Vashti only appears for a short time in the Purim story, but her presence is strong and wilful. We know her as a queen of Persia and the first wife of King Ahasuerus. She is known to be a beautiful woman, if not one who enjoys the decadence of royal life.
In the book we learn that the king is drunk and decides that he wants to show off his wife’s beauty, so he commands Queen Vashti to appear before his male guests.
The text does not say exactly how she is told to appear, only that she is to wear her royal crown. One interpretation is that this means Vashti was commanded to show herself in the nude – wearing only her crown. Vashti refuses to comply. This enrages the king.
If this interpretation is chosen, then Vashti’s narrative becomes a strong feminist story in Jewish literature.
When the king is enraged he is encouraged by a eunuch, and spurred on by other men in the court, that she should be punished severely. After all, he argues, if the king does not deal with her harshly, other wives in the kingdom might get ideas and refuse to obey their own husbands.
From Vashti we learn about principle. At a time when wives were expected to be obedient and docile, Vashti is headstrong and refuses. She chooses to protect her body. For this she pays the ultimate price – she is banished and the title of queen is given to another woman.
We do not actually know why Vashti refused to appear before the King. It could have been out of modesty, or she may simply have been unhappy with her appearance that day.
What is clear is that Vashti refuses to debase herself before the king and his drunken friends.
American author Harriet Beecher-Stowe considered Vashti’s refusal to be a “first stand for women’s rights”. She does not allow any man, not even the most powerful man, to dominate her, resulting in a power play not often associated with a pre-feminist era. It is also relevant to consider how the men in the king’s court wished to push Vashti down in order to ensure the role of women in society remained; something that has happened to women throughout history.