Why Vashti Is The Real Feminist Hero

It's International Women's Day, and it's Purim, so we need to have an important (and timely) conversation about feminism.

The story of Purim is simple-ish (nothing in Judaism is 100% simple). King asked his wife Vashti to come show her beauty to the King and his friends after one too many glasses of wine, she refuses, so he gets rid of her. A man (Mordechai) presents his beautiful niece (Esther), but tells her not to tell anyone she is Jewish because the king's right hand is a classic good ol' anti-Semite. The King loves Esther, and they get married. Haman (king's right hand with the three-pointed hat that inspired hammentaschen) asks Mordechai to bow to him, Mordechai refuses, so Haman goes on an anger rampage against all Jews, telling the King that he should get rid of all of them because they are different and don't listen. Esther sacrifices herself by telling the King that she herself is Jewish and begging him to spare Mordechai and the rest of the Jews. The King agrees and banishes Haman from the land. And then we all sing happy songs and feast in cookies filled with jam.

Ok, now that you have been caught up, we need to talk about who the heroine in the story is. Since I was very little, I was taught that Esther was the one that saved the Jews. For what it’s worth, she technically did. What I was never talked about was Vashti. There isn’t much discussion about the Queen that didn’t want to show her face in front of a group of thirsty drunk men, for which she had to pay the ultimate price of being vanished from her home and position in society. Some interpretations of the megillah (or story as we refer to it in Hebrew) refer to Vashti as vain and conceded, and that’s why she didn’t want to follow orders and come show her beauty. To add salt to the wound, in the megillah, when the King asks his advisers if she should be punished for her disobedience, one of the advisers says that not only has she wronged the King, but “all of the husbands of Persia”.

There is a lot to be unpacked about this little discussed part of the Purim story. I am 35 years old, and throughout 34 of them, I was taught that Esther was the one to be celebrated during Purim, and I get why. She was brave and courageous and any other word you want to come up with. But she wasn’t the only one, and yet, we only talk about her. Why?

I think I have been very lucky in life in some areas. For one thing, I grew up with four sisters, so the treatment was somewhat equal between the four of us. However, growing up, my grandmother always taught us that, when at the table, one should always serve their husband their meal first, then our own. I have to be honest, I don’t normally follow that rule (I get hangry close to meal time). In college my career of choice happened to be comprised of mostly women in the classes (Anthropology and Criminal Justice), and even more so during my Masters (Social Work), so there wasn’t significant competition, or at least not that I could see. I belonged to a sorority, so there were no worries about gender inequality there either. To be honest, the only places that I got a hint of gender inequality was outside of my little self-created bubble of comfort, or as you may know it, out in the real world. As my bubble started to deflate, I started hearing comments like “the male therapist is next door if you need anything”, “try not to wear that shirt again because the patient seems distracted”, or one of my favorites “people don’t trust women with so many tattoos, it puts them off”. Some of these comments appeared so normal to me… yeah I guess having the male counterpart in the room next door makes me safer, or I definitely don’t want to keep the patient from focusing in their treatment just because I want to wear short sleeves (It wasn’t a tank top, or low cut shirt…. It was a tshirt. A fully covered tshirt). It was the tattoo comment that sparked my brain. Does my method of self-expression really make me a less-respectable female? Even when they are hidden when they need to be?

So let’s go back to Vashti. In a way, and this may anger some of my more conservative friends, she’s the epitome of what the #MeToo has become. Vashti had it all; a crown, courtesans, beauty, riches, and as we now know, integrity. She could have kept all of that just by putting her crown on and paraded herself in front of her husband and the other men of Persia; she could have soaked in all of the praise and love she was promised just for her beauty, but she passed. Why did she? Would the King have been stripped of his crown if the roles were reversed, and Vashti had summoned him so he could show off her cute husband to the “wives of Persia”. The story doesn’t have an answer to that particular question, but I am going to venture out an answer and say probably not.

As a society, we often behave as old school Vashti-haters (and I say we, because the judgment doesn’t only come from men). Women get held to a ridiculous different standard because of what our perceived role is in society. Because we give birth and are mothers, we are not to be overly sexy. Because we have to take care of the children, we are selfish for wanting a job outside the home. When we go out with our husbands, we should dress in our sexiest outfit because we need to keep the relationship alive. You get the picture. I don’t need to explain to you how all of this is wrong, and how, as a society, we need to do better.

Vashti wasn’t vain, she wasn’t selfish. She was strong. Regardless of why she didn’t want to put on her crown and go please the King and his men, she didn’t need to or have to. I know we are all taught to be like Esther, righteous and brave. This year, I encourage you to also be like Vashti, loud and bold. 

I have told you guys before about my friend who I met in Israel over the summer. He is what in Judaism we call a “Mensch”, or a person of integrity. He happens to run a men’s group in South Africa, and just this week, we had a conversation about the different standards for women, so he sent me these two images. Use them to fuel you for conversations on this issue, and to inspire you to do better, like they did for me. 



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