Vashti refuses the king’s summons, an 1879 painting by Edwin Long. Vashti was queen of Persia and the first wife of Persian King Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther, which is read on Purim.


Fifty-one years ago this March, Larry, my husband, and I met at Purim party held at Herbie’s Restaurant on Central Ave. in Albany. In a corny, hastily put-together shpiel, Larry a.k.a. Ahasuerus chose me a.k.a. Esther and bypassed my competitors, Libby the Lib and the sassy, insolent Vashti.


Would Larry have chosen me if I had played Vashti? After all, for most of Jewish history, she was portrayed as the headstrong, rash woman who incurred not only the wrath of King Ahasuerus, but also the condemnation of the other male leaders of Persia. “Not obey the king? Why, next thing you know, all the women in our kingdom will be disobeying the men in their lives!” they cried. “Banish the hussy! Or even better yet, execute her to set an example!”

In Purim party after Purim party, most girls—and women— have preferred to dress up as the beautiful, passive replacement who obediently followed the edicts of her husband, King Ahasuerus, and the directions of her uncle Mordechai. Fearing the same fate as her predecessor, even when faced with the extermination of all the Jews in Persia, Esther took time approach her husband. She fasted for three days, threw one banquet, then another, and waited patiently and gracefully for the right moment to revel the evil machinations of the notorious Haman.

Esther finally came through for us, resulting in her always being viewed as the heroine of the story.

With age, wisdom, and more feminist leanings, I have learned to cheer for Vashti, who refused to bow to her husband’ misogynistic demands to dance naked in front of a group of of inebriated male chauvinists. In a 2023 article in the [Harvard] Crimson, writer Arielle C. Frommer dates the history of feminist interpretations of the Purim story to as early as the mid-nineteenth century.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a 19th century leader in the women’s rights movements, described Vashti as “a sublime representative of self-centered womanhood.” Harriet Beecher Stowe, abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabinpraised Vashti’s resistance as a “first stand for women’s rights.” “We shall stand amazed that there was a woman found at the head of the Persian empire that dared to disobey the command even of a drunken monarch,” Stowe wrote.

Praise for Vashti continues into the present day. LaVerne McCain Gill, journalist and pastor, describes Vashti as a “model of rebellion against the patriarchy.” Christian Pentateuch scholar Alice L. Taffy views the disgraced first wife as a greater hero for her lack of dependence on any male figure to make her decision. As while many stories feature Jewish heroes vanquishing their persecutors, Frommer writes that the Purim story is “dependent on a female heroine taking a stand against a patriarchal monarchy, thus linking Jewish liberation directly to the feminist experience.”

A Life For Vashti?

So if Vashti was banished, but not beheaded, I wonder what happened to her? Did she escape to another country that respected strong-willed women who stood their ground?

And did King Ahasuerus and Esther live happily ever after, enjoying wine and challah on Shabbat? Did he give up excessive drinking and look at not only Esther, but all women with more respect?

Get Up, Stand Up…

In this election year, it may be wise for all women to remember the story of Purim and the traits of these women. In 2022, the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wadeending the federal constitutional right to abortion in the United States.

According to Planned Parenthood, as a result, one in three women now live in states where abortion is not accessible. In the first few months after Roe was overturned, 18 states banned or severely restricted abortion. Today more states are working to pass bans.

In February, a state Supreme Court ruling that found frozen embryos have the rights of children under the state’s wrongful death law.

The resulting news stories have been horrifying. In Florida, a woman was forced to carry her child to full term despite the doctors’ knowledge that he would die shortly after birth. In Texas, doctors in one hospital told a 25-year-old woman whose ectopic pregnancy endangered her life to “go home and wait.” [She had emergency surgery 24 hours later in another hospital, where the doctor said she came close to losing her life. In Ohio, a 10-year-old child who had been raped by a family member had to travel to Indiana for an abortion.

Conservatives may have rejoiced with the Supreme Court decision, but it has resulted in a voter backlash. According to a Reuters/Ipso poll taken in December 2023, it resulted in limited Republican gains in the 2022 congressional midterm elections, as well as propelling Democrats to victories in recent off-year elections. The same poll reported 70% of Americans said protecting abortion access in their state would be an important issue in determining their vote in November, including around two-thirds of independent voters. The poll also showed that half of Americans said they would support a law legalizing abortion nationwide, including close to one-third of Republicans.

My Takeaway

Who is in the forefront of the battle? Women. For many women, protecting reproductive rights have become the number one factor in voting decisions. “I am a one-issue voter,” a friend told me recently. “I believe in a woman’s right to chose.”

I believe that it is many old white men in expensive suits with $300 haircuts denying women their rights. It is time for women to take some lessons from Vashti. She believed that she had the right to choose what she did with her body. In 2015, my hero Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “The state controlling a woman’s body would mean denying her full autonomy and ultimately full equality.”

Vashti would agree.

Reproductive rights were center stage in President Biden’s State of the Union address earlier this month. “With all due respect, justices, women are not without electoral or political power,” Biden said. “You’re about to realize just how much.”


Marilyn Shapiro, formerly of Clifton Park, is now a resident of Kissimmee, Fla. Keep Calm and Bake Challah: How I Survived the Pandemic, Politics, Pratfalls, and Other of Life’s Problems is the newest addition to her line-up of books. It joins Tikkun Olam, There Goes My Heart and Fradel’s Story, a compilation of stories by her mother that she edited. Shapiro’s blog is