Reclaiming the Purim Narrative for Queen Vashti and Queen Esther

Now is the time to reclaim the history of these two women, recognize them as the community organizers and activists they were, and give them the credit they deserve. We must see Queen Esther’s decisions as intentional and courageous and embrace the bravery of Queen Vashti’s disobedience.

by Sheila Katz

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The Jewish holiday of Purim features two ancient women, Queen Vashti and Queen Esther, whose stories are framed in an all-too-familiar patriarchal narrative that dismisses their strength, values them only for their beauty, and limits their power within the kingdom. Yet the resilience each embodied against all odds calls to mind the watershed moment currently happening in our national discourse around the #MeToo movement.

Now is the time to reclaim the history of these two women, recognize them as the community organizers and activists they were, and give them the credit they deserve. We must see Queen Esther’s decisions as intentional and courageous and embrace the bravery of Queen Vashti’s disobedience.

Queen Vashti spoke truth to power through direct confrontation. She’s one of our original #TimesUp whistleblowers, rejecting her husband, the king, when he demanded she entertain him and his friends by dancing naked. And Queen Esther, who was brought to the palace as a young girl and mandated to enter the king’s bed, is one of the first #MeToo heroines in the Bible. Ancient commentators fail in their assessment of these situations, often describing Esther only by referencing her beauty and obedience, and vilifying Vashti for being cold and dismissive of the king.

We see this in contemporary society as well. Women in leadership roles are judged for being too soft or too aggressive, too obedient or too disobedient. They are held to unfair standards of leadership, talked about in terms of appearance and not accomplishments. Women are not one thing or the other, they’re individuals who should be celebrated in all their complex diversity.

Queen Vashti was summoned by her husband to join him and several men he had been drinking with. The king asked her to wear only her royal crown to show off her beauty to his friends. Queen Vashti refused and for that lost her position and had to leave the country. While there are many interpretations of why Queen Vashti might not have come before the king, it is critical to hold her up as an exemplary woman who stands her ground.

Women who stand up for themselves, including when reporting harassment, are often dismissed and portrayed as troublemakers, not changemakers. Talking about Queen Vashti or any woman who says no as being disobedient or vain undermines the leadership it takes to stand up for one’s rights. When we picture Queen Vashti being banished from the kingdom, let us picture her walking away with pride and contentment, as she is no longer with a man who did not respect her right to her own body.

Queen Esther was strong and vulnerable, strategic and adaptable, and exemplified leadership that produced real results. Reducing her to a beautiful woman who happened to be in the right place at the right time is insulting to her story and to the countless women today who exercise leadership in a way that is authentic to them.

Upon realizing she and the Jewish people of her kingdom were in danger, Queen Esther organized a three-day fast for her people before she approached the king. She knew asking him to save the Jewish people was a request punishable by death, but she built a meaningful relationship with him until she knew he was ready to give her anything she wanted. Ultimately, she saved the Jewish people by building a relationship with the one person who had the ability to enact change. She then counseled the king on policy and made sure her suggestions were implemented.

This year, as you read or listen to the story of Purim, remember Queen Esther as an organizer and Queen Vashti as an activist. And as we join in the conversation of this #MeToo moment, let us share the stories of women in our own communities who are using the power they have to act as change agents and organizers, especially when it goes against the stories others usually tell about them.

Sheila Katz is the Vice President for Student Engagement and Leadership at Hillel International, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world.