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Vashti, Esther, And The Feminist History of Purim

A fresco of "Queen Esther" in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence, painted by Andrea del Castagno in 1450.
A fresco of "Queen Esther" in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence, painted by Andrea del Castagno in 1450. By Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
By Arielle C. Frommer, Crimson Staff Writer

The holiday of Purim is popular among the Jewish community for various reasons — delicious feasting and hamantaschen, bright and colorful costumes, and festive songs and spiels abound. This night of revelry is topped off with a dramatic reading of the Megillah — also known as the Book of Esther — telling the story of Purim. While the themes of freedom from persecution and maintaining one’s faith in G-d are echoed in most of the Jewish holidays, Purim is unique in that its story features a female heroine, Queen Esther, explicitly centering women in its narrative.

The Purim story is set in motion by the actions of Esther’s predecessor, Queen Vashti, whose headstrong nature threatens her own freedom. The Megillah opens with a resplendent feast celebrating the wealth and glory of Persia, given by King Ahasuerus in the city of Shushan. When Ahasuerus demands that his queen dance before the courtiers unclothed so that they may also see her beauty, Vashti refuses out of personal pride, arousing his ire. She is banished from the kingdom (and in some versions, executed) for her defiance — her rash actions are severely punished and her rule soon forgotten.

Esther is then chosen to be Ahasuerus’s new queen, and her cautious passivity is at odds with Vashti’s stubborn assertiveness. Throughout the story, she hides her Jewish identity from the King, but when the king’s evil advisor Haman hatches a plan to exterminate the Jews, she is urged by her cousin Mordecai to intervene and save the Jewish people.

However, it’s not so simple for Queen Esther. Approaching the king without summons is punishable by death, and after the cautionary tale of Queen Vashti, Esther is more than hesitant to come forward. After the Jewish people fast and pray for her safety, Esther finally musters up the courage to confront Ahasuerus, but in her own way: She first asks him to feast with her and Haman, but when it comes time to make her announcement, she invites them to another feast. This continues until she works up the courage to condemn Haman and vouch for her people.

When she finally gains the strength to speak out and protect her people, she is rewarded for her bravery; the king is furious with Haman at persecuting the people of his Queen and has him hanged, and Esther and Morcedai are hailed as heroes.

Esther and Vashti emerge as clear foils to each other in the Purim story. Vashti is headstrong and assertive, which she is heavily punished for, while Esther is docile and submissive — the perfect queen. She dutifully obeys the commands of Mordecai and Ahasuerus, the two men in her life, until their conflicting expectations are at odds with each other and the jeopardy of her freedom demands action. However, Esther acts with care in her own measured way, saving the Jewish people while remaining in good graces with the king.

While Esther is the obvious hero of the story, Vashti deserves credit in her own right. Esther is unimaginably brave, but in some ways she is still complicit in patriarchal rule, playing by the king’s rules and bending them just enough to prevent a Jewish genocide. While this caution is perhaps necessary, it is Vashti who truly defies the patriarchy and abandons it altogether through her firm refusal to yield to the king’s petty, objectifying wish.

The story appears to condemn and discard Vashti for her disobedience as Esther sweeps in to save the day. However, a more nuanced interpretation suggests that the king is the real villain of the Purim tale: Fickle and capricious mood swings, lewd demands that dishonor his queenly wife, and dumb complicity in Haman’s evil actions show Ahasuerus to be a weak and impressionable king. It is reasonable to assume that a king who impulsively decrees that the Jews shall be exterminated may also be incorrect in punishing Vashti. Her banishment demonstrates that a powerful woman was seen as a potent threat in this patriarchal world, leading her to martyrdom.

In fact, feminists have frequently placed Vashti, not Esther, on a pedestal, lauding her as an ancient symbol of female empowerment. First-wave feminists hailed her as an icon for her refusal to abide by her husband’s misogynistic demands — Harriet Beecher Stowe praised Vashti’s resistance as a “first stand for women’s rights,” and Elizabeth Cady Stanton described her as “a sublime representative of self-centered womanhood.” Both feminists lauded her as a paragon of dignity and self-respect, with Stowe writing that “we shall stand amazed that there was a woman found at the head of the Persian empire that dared to disobey the command even of a drunken monarch.”

Modern feminism also celebrates Vashti. For example, theologian Laverne McCain Gill describes Vashti as a model of rebellion against the patriarchy, and Old Testament scholar Alice Laufey argues that Vashti appeals to modern feminists over the main heroine of the story because of her lack of complicity in the patriarchy in comparison to Esther.

Truthfully, both women can be celebrated as feminist heroes in their own ways. While Esther initially plays the role of passive consort — as the replacement of a willful queen, she knows she is meant to embody the antithesis of Vashti’s character — she eventually must discover Vashti’s courage in herself, even if that means risking her life and kingdom. Esther’s mild-mannered temperament is her saving grace as it enables her to access spaces others cannot and eventually subvert those qualities to save the day.

Beyond empowering individual women, the story also associates their autonomy with Jewish liberation in a compelling parallel analogy. While many stories feature Jewish heroes fighting against their persecutors and emerging victorious, the Purim story is unique in that the safety of the Jewish people is dependent on a female heroine taking a stand against a patriarchal monarchy, thus linking Jewish liberation directly to the feminist experience. With this new perspective on Purim, we can better appreciate the story and celebrate the brave Jewish women who ensured the safety of their people and became a powerful symbol of feminist empowerment.

—Staff writer Arielle C. Frommer can be reached at arielle.frommer@thecrimson.com.

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