Vashti and Esther: Women in Action

The actions of Vashti and Esther in Megillat Eshter teach us about feminine activism. We will study the story of these two women from a feminist perspective.

Resource Ages: 12-14


Vashti refuses to appear at King Ahashverosh’s banquet, despite having been ordered to do so:

On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he ordered […] to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing a royal diadem, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials; for she was a beautiful woman. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command conveyed by the eunuchs. The king was greatly incensed, and his fury burned within him.

(Esther 1: 10–12)

בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי כְּטוֹב לֵב הַמֶּלֶךְ בַּיָּיִן אָמַר […] לְהָבִיא אֶת וַשְׁתִּי הַמַּלְכָּה לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ בְּכֶתֶר מַלְכוּת: לְהַרְאוֹת הָעַמִּים וְהַשָּׂרִים אֶת יָפְיָהּ, כִּי טוֹבַת מַרְאֶה הִיא.  

וַתְּמָאֵן הַמַּלְכָּה וַשְׁתִּי, לָבוֹא בִּדְבַר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר בְּיַד הַסָּרִיסִים; 

וַיִּקְצֹף הַמֶּלֶךְ מְאֹד, וַחֲמָתוֹ בָּעֲרָה בוֹ. 

As she begins her life in the palace, Esther plays a passive role in her own life:

When the king’s order and edict was proclaimed, and when many girls were assembled in the fortress Shushan under the supervision of Hegai, Esther too was taken into the king’s palace under the supervision of Hegai, guardian of the women. 

The girl pleased him and won his favor, and he hastened to furnish her with her cosmetics and her rations […] Every single day Mordecai would walk about in front of the court of the harem, to learn how Esther was faring and what was happening to her. […] 

When the turn came for Esther […] to go to the king, she did not ask for anything but what Hegai, the king’s eunuch, guardian of the women, advised […]

Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus, […] The king loved Esther more than all the other women, […] So he set a royal diadem on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.

But Esther still did not reveal her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had instructed her; for Esther obeyed Mordecai’s bidding, as she had done when she was under his tutelage.

(Esther 2: 8–17, 20)

וַתִּלָּקַח אֶסְתֵּר אֶל בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶל יַד הֵגַי שֹׁמֵר הַנָּשִׁים. 

וַתִּיטַב הַנַּעֲרָה בְעֵינָיו וַתִּשָּׂא חֶסֶד לְפָנָיו וַיְבַהֵל אֶת תַּמְרוּקֶיהָ וְאֶת מָנוֹתֶהָ לָתֵת לָהּ […]

וּבְכָל יוֹם וָיוֹם מָרְדֳּכַי מִתְהַלֵּךְ לִפְנֵי חֲצַר בֵּית הַנָּשִׁים לָדַעַת אֶת שְׁלוֹם אֶסְתֵּר וּמַה יֵּעָשֶׂה בָּהּ. […]

וּבְהַגִּיעַ תֹּר אֶסְתֵּר […] לָבוֹא אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ, לֹא בִקְשָׁה דָּבָר כִּי אִם אֶת אֲשֶׁר יֹאמַר הֵגַי סְרִיס הַמֶּלֶךְ שֹׁמֵר הַנָּשִׁים […]. 

וַתִּלָּקַח אֶסְתֵּר אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ […]. וַיֶּאֱהַב הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת אֶסְתֵּר מִכָּל הַנָּשִׁים […] וַיָּשֶׂם כֶּתֶר מַלְכוּת בְּרֹאשָׁהּ וַיַּמְלִיכֶהָ תַּחַת וַשְׁתִּי.   

[…] אֵין אֶסְתֵּר מַגֶּדֶת מוֹלַדְתָּהּ וְאֶת עַמָּהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה עָלֶיהָ מָרְדֳּכָי וְאֶת מַאֲמַר מָרְדֳּכַי אֶסְתֵּר עֹשָׂה כַּאֲשֶׁר הָיְתָה בְאָמְנָה אִתּוֹ.

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Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • What happens when belief systems of societies and individuals come into conflict?
  • When is it appropriate to challenge the beliefs or values of society?
  • What are the factors that move individuals / communities / nations to great sacrifice and what are the consequences?
  • What can we learn from different generations?
  • To what extent does power or the lack of power affect individuals?
  • How are prejudice and bias created? How do we overcome them?
  • When is it necessary to question the status quo? Who decides? 
  • What propels some individuals to take a stand against prejudice/oppression while others choose to participate in it?
  • What are the different ways to be a hero and how do I become one?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What can we learn from Vashti and Esther for our own era?
  • What is the relationship between the actions of Vashti and Esther and the feminist movement?

Background for Teacher

Vashti and Esther, the two queens mentioned in the megillah, represent different aspects of female leadership and activism. Vashti is presented in the megillah in a short but important episode, which sets into motion the plot of the megillah. King Ahashverosh, full of wine...

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Vashti and Esther, the two queens mentioned in the megillah, represent different aspects of female leadership and activism. Vashti is presented in the megillah in a short but important episode, which sets into motion the plot of the megillah. King Ahashverosh, full of wine after a week of banquets, calls on Vashti to appear before the revelers and present her beauty. Vashti refuses and the megillah does not explain the reasons for her refusal. This appears to be a surprising act of rebellion for a woman in a patriarchal system. However, it appears that the status of women in ancient Persian culture was not as low as we might assume. Women held different positions of political power and the queen could make important decisions on different issues. According to the megillah, Vashti’s refusal raised concern that the women of the kingdom might see her as a role model and that this could lead additional women to rebel against their husbands. Following the advice of his advisors, King Ahashverosh decided that Vashti would be replaced: “and the king will give the crown to another woman who is better than her.”

At the beginning of the megillah, Esther seems to fit the role of the submissive woman who Ahashverosh was looking for. She is passive and all of her actions reflect the desires of the men around her. The megillah describes her as someone to whom things are done, almost like an object, who does not do anything on her own. For example, the following is said about Esther: “she was taken”; “what will be done to her” and “she did not ask for anything.” Her voice and desires are not heard in this part of the megillah, but in the course of her conversation with Mordechai about the future of the Jewish people, she changes her approach and takes an active position. Esther instructs Mordechai and the Jewish people how to behave and directs the course of events, in order to hold back the king and save her nation. In the midrash, the sages describe Esther as someone who repeatedly asks and even demands that they make Purim a permanent holiday and include Megillat Esther in the Ketuvim (Writings) section of the Tanach.

In the 19th century, the pioneers of the feminist movement began to view Vashti as a figure with whom they could identify and as a role model. Her story was rewritten from a feminist perspective and she was described as a heroine in the poetry of that era. In 1911, the American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote a poem about Vashti that encouraged women in the US and in England to demand the right to vote. In Wilcox’s poem, Vashti is first and foremost a woman who is forced to fight for her personal dignity against her drunken husband. Women who were being asked to obey their husbands were presented with the figure of Vashti, which reminded them that they were first of all queens or wives: “but a woman still — Ay, and a woman strong enough.” In the book The Woman’s Bible, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the leader of the suffragette movement, similarly praised Vashti as a figure worthy of admiration alongside other biblical figures, such as Deborah, Huldah and Esther.

Alongside the feminist praise of Vashti, there were those who criticized Esther for being passive and obedient. But, there were others who saw Esther as representing another aspect of female leadership. In a contemporary feminist midrash, Bea Wyler adds two new chapters to the ten chapters of Megillat Esther. In Chapter 11, Esther considers how she has been subjugated as a woman and decides to act on behalf of her “people” — all women. She invites the king and Mordechai to a banquet, presents the problem to them and obtains their agreement to change the situation. In Chapter 12, Esther sends a notice to all parts of the empire that calls on the women to unite and fight for their rights. Wyler concludes with Esther granting Vashti an official pardon, organizing a public banquet in her honor and granting Vashti a crown in recognition of her accomplishments as a spokesperson for human dignity. Esther even appoints Vashti as her personal advisor. This story provides a “correction” for the story in the megillah, which ends with no real improvement in the status of women.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study

Watch this clip from the movie One Night with the King in which the king asks Vashti to appear before him and she refuses and/or watch this clip in which Esther decides to go to the king, despite the danger involved in doing so. (You can turn on the automatic subtitles in different languages.) Discuss how the women and the story are presented in the movie.

  1. Why do you think Vashti refused to obey the king? What do you think about what she did?
  2. The king’s advisors were worried that Vashti would be seen as a role model by the women of the empire and would inspire them to rebel against their husbands. What can we learn from this about the status of women in the Persian Empire of that time? What do you think about this way of relating to women?
  3. At the start of the megillah, Esther acts passively and is directed by men, without expressing her own will. Why do you think she behaved that way? What do you think about this way of behaving? 
  4. In certain situations, Esther did not have any choice as to how to behave, for example, when she was taken to the palace. What can we learn from this about situations in which we judge women (and men) who do not act for themselves? 
  5. Why do you think Esther changed her behavior and went from a passive role to an active role? Have you ever changed your position on some matter in your own life and gone from playing a passive role to playing an active role? If so, what led you to play a more active role? 
  6. What does the Talmudic passage add regarding the influence of Esther’s active approach?
  7. What messages have you received from your surroundings regarding the role of women in the family, at school and in the culture (sports, movies, TV shows, etc.)? Who has influenced and inspired you? Do you think that Vashti or Esther could be a role model in this area? Why or why not? 
  8. The poem “The Revolt of Vashti” was written at a time when women did not have the right to vote and were considered to be inferior to men. How can Vashti’s story serve as inspiration for the feminist struggle? How is this expressed in the poem? 
  9. Is the feminine activism of Vashti similar to or different from Esther’s feminine activism? Explain you answer.
  10. What can we learn from Vashti and Esther about feminine activism and leadership? With which of these figures do you identify more closely on this matter? Why? 
  • Present the students with King Ahashverosh’s request of Queen Vashti. Have the students work in pairs. Ask them to think about how Vashti felt about that request and how she reacted to it. Ask the students to try to understand why she did not want to come. What thoughts and issues did she consider in the face of this demand? What risks did she face in not obeying and why did she decide to take those risks? Ask the students to create a skit, written work or drawing that portrays Vashti discussing the king’s request with the other women who were with her at the banquet. 
  • Ask the students to write a letter, as Vashti or Esther, to the people of Shushan. Vashti’s letter will explain the reasons why she refused to listen to King Ahashverosh and Esther’s letter will explain what led her to move from a passive position into an active role.
  • In the megillah, Vashti and Esther never meet. However, they share many things in common, alongside their differences. Ask the students to create a meeting between Esther and Vashti — in a sketch, comic strip or some other form — in which the characters discuss their views on different feminist topics, such as granting rights to women, equal pay, the role of the woman in the family, etc. 
  • Suggest that the students learn about modern-day feminist battles, such as the #MeToo movement or another topic. Have them make a creative presentation of the subject to the class, in which they integrate their topic of study into the story of Megillat Esther or use the characters from the megillah. 
  • You can use the Gallery of Israeli Heroines presentation and the Leadership and Responsibility resource to learn more about female leadership.
  • You can watch this short video about Vashti, which includes artwork that depicts her.
  • You can watch videos on feminist topics, such as What Is Feminism, Kids Describe Feminism to an Illustrator and Gender Stereotypes and Education.
  • You can study the work “Front Row Seat” by Dov Abramson from the exhibit Vashti: The Hidden Chapter. This work describes the meeting of the seven advisors with whom the king consulted regarding Vashti’s refusal to appear before him. The work teaches us about many situations throughout history and in our own day and age in which the fate of women is decided by men who discuss these matters without any women being present. The men in this work are shown as faceless, so that they can be seen as any man in any era. The work is decorated with astrological symbols, which emphasize the idea of deterministic fate that no human can influence.