Vashti is not a failure; Esther is not a bad feminist

Vashti Refuses the King's Summons by Edwin Long, 1878.
Courtesy of Bob Jones University Museum and Gallery.

Abby Wisse Schachter, associate editor at the New York Post, recently published an article in Commentary Magazine that suggests that feminist thinking has changed the meaning of Purim, and that that is a bad thing. I have not read the piece because the article is only available to subscribers, and therefore I cannot evaluate the merit of Schachter’s individual arguments. Still, I reject the idea that a feminist interpretation of the Purim story “lionizes the wrong woman, promotes a false political message of nonviolence and tolerance, and worst of all embraces failure instead of promoting perhaps the greatest of Jewish heroines,” as Schachter argues in her abstract.

The feminist interpretation of Purim that Schachter finds so distasteful involves the recognition and celebration of Queen Vashti for refusing to “display her beauty” (or dance naked) in public at the request of her drunk husband, King Ahasuerus. As punishment for her disobedience, she loses her post as Queen and some argue that she is killed. Schachter appears to suggest that Vashti’s actions represent failure and should not be celebrated.

Vashti’s replacement, Queen Esther, is the traditional heroine of the Purim story – the only one Schachter thinks we should be celebrating. Esther is compelled by Mordechai to appeal to the King to stop Haman’s evil plot to massacre the Jews. She knows she cannot simply go before the King unbidden; to do so could result in her death. She ultimately decides to do so, but uses her charm and wit to get the King in the right state of mind to hear her plea. Finally, when the time is right, she reveals her Jewish identity to the King and reminds him that killing the Jews would include killing her as well. The King is sympathetic and allows the Jews to defend themselves, which they did rather successfully.  

Marissa Brostaff of Tablet writes that in this feminist reading, Esther supposedly plays a lesser role because “she lacks [Vashti’s] admirable chutzpah, relying instead on a more old-fashioned brand of feminine wiles to get what she wants.” Maybe this is true in the Schachter's description, but I hardly think it that all feminists feel this way.

Unlike the majority of Biblical women, Esther and Vashti were autonomous and they made their own choices. Vashti refused to obey and paid the price. Esther chose to play the system to get the job done. Regardless of which method you prefer, both women played active roles in their own lives. Feminism is tricky to define but choice and autonomy make up its ideological core. We must remember that there is no “right”way to be a feminist. As we re-examine these texts, it’s important to recognize that more than one type of woman can be a feminist heroine. 

“The Mirror Has Two Faces” is a brilliant piece on the subject by Wendy Amsellem, originally published in the JOFA Journal in 2003.  The piece, written from an Orthodox Feminist perspective, argues that while Esther represents a more traditional ideal of womanhood, she had to “confront the image of Vashti and incorporate (or perhaps discover) the attributes of Vashti in herself” in order to succeed.

I cannot speak directly to Schachter’s article without having read it, but I can say that MY feminist reinterpretation of Purim not only celebrates Vashti and Esther, but validates both of their choices. Vashti is not a failure, and Esther is not a bad feminist. Everyone inevitably winds up in dangerous situations where there is no easy answer. Sometimes we choose to put our safety and security before our ideals. Other times we decide that standing on principle is worth the consequence. It seems to me that there is a little bit of Vashti and a little bit of Esther in all of us, and we call on the strength of both women when making these tough decisions.  

Topics: Feminism, Purim
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Gotta love the new wave. A woman said no to a man. 'Nuff said, end of story. She's a hero and a true feminist. Except that she forced Jewish women to strip naked and work - against THEIR wills. And except loved to show off her bod in front of the guys but had a bad skin disease that day so kindly refused the request. How feminist of her. Seriously. You're not a hero or a feminist simply for being a woman and saying no to a man once, especially when you have a history of regularly subjugating other women. This may be a radical view, but sometimes context is important. It's this kind of nonsense that breeds lovely people like Tamara Kolton who believe that Eve is the first #MeToo victim - with G-d as her attacker.

This past Sunday the Pastor’s sermon was about Esther and Queen Vashti. His version did not mention she was to be nude!  He also glimpsed over the fact that the King was drunk. I knew his version had some holes and decided to research the real story. I’m glad I did. Thank you Dr. James Mckenzie for honoring Queen Vashti.

Purim- the Power of a Jewish Woman,

There is a growing movement of people who believe that Vashti is the heroine of the Purim story. These people, mostly feminists, think that because Vashti stood up to the king and refused to come to his party in her birthday suit, that she is the hero of the story. Unfortunately for them, Vashti’s case doesn’t really hold up in court. The real story is that Vashti was so disgustingly conceited that she would have loved nothing more than to parade around in front of the whole country in the nude; however at that moment, the sources say Vashti got awful skin diseases- so she was too embarrassed to come out. Sorry feminists, Vashti can’t be your poster child, but someone else can…

Esther was taken to the palace against her will, and selected as queen against her will. But she stuck it out. She knew that she was in the unique position to possibly save her people- who Haman had decreed should all be wiped out. She used cunning, her feminine strength and finesse to get the king to play into the palm of her hand. At just the right moment revealed her identity to the king and made a plea for him to save her nation. She knew that sometimes patience and a plan is the only way to get what you want. She knew sometimes you have to suppress your own desires temporarily to get what you really want, or to get what’s best for your loved ones. She knew that she had such tremendous power to manipulate the king, and she used it for the best possible reason. What better message to send a feminist or a MetroImma? You as a woman have the command and composure to turn a situation around. You have the wisdom to make plans, and seize the perfect moment to execute them. You have the sway to influence your husband, your family, your community for better or worse….

So this Purim, remind yourself how much power you have and think about how you are going to use it.

We have no idea what in the world you are talking. You are adding a lot of stuff to the story that is not there. The only thing that we know about Vashti is that she had her own banquet and she did not obey the King. Esther, on the other hand, did everything she was asked to do. The bottom line is that obedience trumps disobedience every time which falls right in line with Biblical principles. If you obey you get the crown and if you disobey you get removed fro the throne. That's what the story is about, obedience versus disobedience.

Vashti is more than a failure. What King Ahasuerus planned to do to Vashti [have her go out naked] is exactly what she did to Jewish women. She forced Jewish women to be naked before her and to do work [more accurately Melacha] for her on Shabbat. Vashti was a fraud. The reason why Vashti refused to go out there had nothing to do with women's rights. Unlike the Jewish girls, who were forced to be naked before her, She actually agreed to be naked before the men at the feast. But the reason why she declined was because she didn't look that great. According to the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yose Bar Chanina, it was because she had leprosy. According to a Baraisa recorded in the Talmud, it was because the angel Gavriel gave her a tail [really an abnormal part of her body]. In any case, it had nothing to do with Feminism or women's rights. And according to the Talmud, what happened to Vashti was a measure for a measure. In other words, it was G-d's judgement against her for her immoral ways and her abuse of Jewish women.

Source: Masechet Megillah Esther 12 a-b, PS. In case anyone criticizes me that I'm just going by what the rabbis say and not what the actual text in the Tanakh says, please note that we also know from the Rabbis that the King's request for Vashti was to appear naked. For that part is also nowhere in the actual text of the Tanakh either. So therefore, anyone responding to this comment with that counterargument is therefore being selective.

Why, indeed, can't we accept both women as feminists in their own right?

I actually agree with some of what Schachter argues (the full article is now available on the Commentary site), especially the importance of placing the Purim story within its historical context. Had Esther followed Vashti's example, we probably would have nothing to celebrate on Purim: "the active female defender of the Jews who defeats the more powerful male adviser to her husband by using one of the few means of influence a woman in ancient times might have been able to wield is then bizarrely belittled as passive, a mere tool in the hands of her older male relative."

And yes, the self-defense angle of the story is an integral part of it, even if that's difficult to acknowledge in our current political climate. Likewise, the fact that Esther was Jewish and Vashti wasn't. It is, after all, a Jewish holiday. Unfortunately, Schachter's anger at all things feminist (or at least, that's the impression here) gets in the way of any relevant comments. It's hard to wade through to get to anything worthwhile.

Maybe once the pendulum stops swinging, we'll be able to get past this Esther/Vashti - good/evil dichotomy.

I see nothing wrong and much good in extolling the virtues of Vashti, as recounted in the story, as a feminist with the courage of her convictions in the face of a drunken king attempting to show off her charms in front of his drunken buddies! Indeed, several prominent and important women have been named after her. My mother was named Vashti and lived up to her namesake by taking a highly controversial case, involving the separation of church and state, to the US Supreme Court, winning what was a landmark case, involving sectarian(Christian)religious instruction in the public schools. Additionally, I have a daughter and a grand-daughter with that famous name! It is highly regarded in my family. Add, also, the name of Bishop Vashti McKenzie, the highly regarded first female bishop of the AME Church.

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How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Vashti is not a failure; Esther is not a bad feminist." 24 February 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 25, 2024) <>.