Search the Site


Was I, Esther, a Feminist?

Marc Chagall

Imagine we could get into a time machine to meet the biblical Esther and ask her: “Would you consider yourself a feminist?” Here might be her answer.

That is not an easy question.

On the one hand, I did behave boldly, even brazenly, by coming to King Ahasuerus unbidden, of my own initiative. I risked my life to do so, but it did achieve my goals. You could say that I grew from a young, innocent virgin who obeyed her elders into someone willing to challenge conventions and expectations in order to save my people as well as my cousin and myself. To that end, I lied about my origins, manipulated my self-assured royal husband to do my will, and beat the evil Haman at his own game. In short, I acted as a strong woman, a link in a chain of such women who saved Israel at various points and periods: Deborah, Yael, Judith …

So, if a woman who believes in her abilities diplomatic and otherwise, who is willing to stand up to men when their intentions are not honorable, and who fights for her objectives (and wins) is a feminist—then yes, I am a feminist indeed.

Some may say, however, that I became savior to my people out of obedience. After all, Mordecai prodded me into action. (I must add that his haughty behavior is to blame, at least in part, for the national danger, though that does not justify Haman’s genocidal plan, of course.) Also, I used my good looks in order to gain an audience with my husband, the king. In fact, I appeared before him in all my splendor, precisely what former-queen Vashti refused to do, thereby losing her position to me. (Of the two of us, perhaps she is more the feminist, refusing to play the game of displaying her beauty as a trophy?)

I used feminine wiles in order to get the king’s favor—did I not wine and dine him and Haman, twice? Was not the king’s mind made up about this weighty business of royal decree and genocide at the moment he saw Haman pleading with me and thought that Haman was trying to molest me? So, in an age-old fashion, I used my femininity and sexuality to win this deadly serious game. Is this how feminists behave? Is this how they should behave? There’s no agreement on this. Some say, why not? A woman should use whatever there is in her power and ability to persevere in this man’s world. Others claim this is shameful, conservative, unworthy of a liberated woman.

Ultimately, please remember, “feminist” is a modern, even postmodern, term. Where and when I lived, a woman—be she as strong and resourceful as she might, be she the hero of the day, or a national savior, even subversive in her methods—remained secondary to the men in her life and dependent on them. Notice how my story recalls that I wrote a letter to the Jewish Diaspora, the same as Mordecai; but unlike him, after that, I disappear. At the end of the day, Mordecai gets to be the king’s viceroy, to own Haman’s house, to become influential. Me? gone.

So, am I a feminist? You tell me!

  • Athalya Brenner

    Athalya Brenner is professor emerita of Hebrew Bible/OldTestament in the Univeristy of Amsterdam, the Netherlands; professor in biblical studies at the Department of Hebrew Culture Studies at Tel Aviv University, Israel; and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Stellenbosch. Among her publications are I Am: Biblical Women Tell Their Own Stories (Fortress Press, 2005) and Performing Memory in Biblical Narrative and Beyond, edited with Frank Polak (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009).