Tonight is Purim, so let’s talk about the two women in the Purim story: Vashti and Esther. (Of course there’s Zeresh, too, but she doesn’t really have that many lines.)
Vashti, the King’s first wife, loses her title as queen because she refuses to parade herself (many say naked) in front of the king and his drunken friends. And doing so rocks Shushan’s world. To quote the Megillah, Chapter 1:
Memuchan declared before the king and the ministers: “It is not against the King alone that Queen Vashti has sinned, but against all the ministers and all the nations in all the provinces of King Achashverosh. For word of the queen’s deed will reach all the women and it will belittle their husbands in their eyes. For they will say: ‘King Achashverosh commanded that Queen Vashti be brought before him, yet she did not come!'”
So, after reading this, you can probably see why there’s been a lot of talk in the feminist world about Vashti—about how she’s portrayed as a “bad queen” by Judaism but how in reality, she actually deserves a lot of respect for being a self-respecting woman and standing up for herself. (I’d have to agree.) But I, for one, have never been taught to think of her as the “bad queen”; in fact, when I was a little girl I and my friends used to dress up as both Vashti and Esther. (When you’re five, a queen is a queen.)
Even so, there are apparently a lot of stories in the Talmud about the villainous acts that Vashti commits. About how her refusal was pure arrogance, about how she allegedly descends from Nebuchadnezzar (who destroyed the temple), about how she abused Jewish female slaves, and about how she feared Judaism because it made people “unconquerable.” Now, I’m not sure what to make of these stories, because a lot of Midrash is somewhat fable. And also because I’m not sure where the origins of these stories could be (because there is zero mention of these things in the actual Megillah), but I don’t feel that I have a right to write these stories off. So I’ve mentioned them for the sake of mentioning, but because I haven’t studied them in-depth I’m going to stick with discussing the text from the Megillah.
Vashti stood up to the king. Motives aside, she did something that got her in a lot of trouble, but that she believed would be best for her and her body. And the Megillah offers a very realistic depiction of what happens when women do just that: a lot of times they get kicked out, maybe from a palace or maybe from their homes. But in a less extreme sense, sometimes when you stand up for something you get “kicked out” in that you get judged, or someone labels you as “just a feminist” and writes you off. And it happens. And while when it was created I don’t think the Megillah was calling out for this to change, I think that now, many many years later, we can read the Megillah every year and use it as a jumping-off point for discussions of the reality of women in this world. And not just women, but people as a whole who stand up for themselves and their dignity and are forced to deal with undeserved consequences.
To finish, I will touch on Esther: yes, she was beautiful, and loved for her looks. And yes, she did take quite the nudging from Mordechai to save the Jews. But she does represent another kind of feminist, the kind who uses her femininity and beauty to her advantage in order to sway the King and gain, although in a roundabout way, power. And while people can judge her for doing so, in the end, it works—and she makes the choice to get things the only way she sees possible in her time period. (Because really, if we think about when the Megillah was written, her actions make a lot more sense than if we think about them now.) And so the Megillah teaches us, somewhat surprisingly, to be like Esther, and to do what you need to do, even if it means using your beauty (but don’t take this as the only interpretation please, because a lot of people will argue that Jewish texts honor modesty above all).
But now, I don’t think we have to choose any more. There is room for both Esthers and Vashtis, women who want to use their bodies and charms to get things, and women who will do no such thing. (I am not abdicating for selling your body here, do not worry. I’m talking about doing things like wearing “royal garments” at opportune times, and letting the King feel pampered.) But there are also women in the middle, women who uphold an incredibly high standard of self-respect but who also know when a charming smile can work wonders. And all of these women can be feminists, in that they make their choices for themselves because they believe they are doing what will be the best for them.