By: Rachel Eisen
Everyone always wants to talk about Vashti. Vashti’s a feminist hero because she refuses to dance naked for the king and then she gets exiled. She’s brash and independent, and men villainize her, unlike Esther, who’s just a pawn of the men in her life.
Wait a minute. Wait just a minute.
This is the Purim narrative I grew up with. You, too, probably heard that Esther saved her people, but only because Mordechai guided her. I’m here today to tell you that’s wrong. Esther is not only not a pawn, she’s also way more of a hero than Mordechai and a feminist hero at that.
People say that Esther is a pawn because she allowed Mordechai, her uncle/cousin/some sort of male relation, to enter her in the beauty contest that resulted in her replacing Vashti as the king’s wife.
Well, actually, this isn’t so clear. The text says Esther was “taken” to a house where all the contestants were; the verb used is tilakakh ”תלקח,” the passive form of the root for “take.” The verb is the female form because Hebrew is a gendered language and passive verb forms take the gender of the person or object being acted upon. But there’s no male in the sentence! The surrounding plot suggests Esther is taken “when many girls were gathered together.” So maybe Esther isn’t so much a female at the mercy of her older male relative but, you know, a person helpless against the authorities who are going around and kidnapping young women!
People also point out that when Esther becomes queen, she “carried out the bidding of Mordechai, just as when she was brought up with him.” So there. Case closed. Esther just does what this man tells her to do.
Well…again, not so clear. The “bidding” that the text is referring to isn’t an open-ended set of commands. It’s a specific command not to tell the king she’s Jewish. Because as you can guess, that probably would not have ended so well for Esther. Also, what about that part “when she was brought up with him”? Oh yeah, Mordechai had raised Esther as his own daughter after her parents died. Let’s be real. Regardless of gender, our guardians are authority figures. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a gender dynamic going on here. It’s just not the only power dynamic.
To be fair, none of this means that Esther is a feminist hero yet. She hasn’t really done anything so far. But I also don’t see her as a pawn, either.
Now things start to get good. Some guards plot to kill the king, and Mordechai reports them and saves the king’s life. Good job, Mordechai. Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman. Good job, Mordechai? Oh, wait, now Haman wants to kill all the Jews.
Remember how the king owes Mordechai his life? Well, Mordechai never got rewarded for that. His reward comes later. So in theory, the king owes one to Mordechai. But instead of using that to his advantage, he dumps all the responsibility for this problem on his niece, who, in case you need to be reminded, hasn’t told the king that she’s Jewish, which was Mordechai’s idea in the first place. Yeah, Mordechai’s a real hero.
On top of all that, the king has this rule that no one, “whether man or woman,” may come speak to him unless he calls for him or her first. So what is Esther to do?
Okay, everyone, pay attention, because we are about to witness Esther’s feminist act:
It is Esther who steps up and assumes leadership to stop the genocide of the Jews. SHE is the one who gets everyone to fast with her in spiritual preparation for this extremely dangerous thing she is going to do. SHE comes up with the plan to woo the king over with a series of banquets, and SHE gets the king to find favor with her through these banquets, and then SHE saves all the Jews by exposing Haman and revealing her own identity, all at a pretty big risk. And where was Mordechai in all this? Riding around on a glittering horse, finally reaping his reward for saving the king’s life.
Esther was the one who got it together in the end to do something. She was the one, not Mordechai, who came up with and executed the plan to save her people. This was a feminist act because of the context in which she lived: women were objects, and they were not supposed to act. But Esther acted.
Esther and Vashti are both pretty awesome. I don’t know if either of these women are actually a feminist. We don’t know much about Vashti’s character or actions beyond what she did at the beginning of the text. And Esther’s ordering the execution of Haman’s entire family is pretty not-feminist. But that doesn’t mean their individual actions aren’t important. Vashti flat out refused to play the part of the objectified woman. Esther resisted her society’s expectations of her gender by taking action without the help of men. And because she did, she stopped a genocide and saved her people. So don’t discount Esther–let’s talk about her, too.