Purim: The First International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day, and we have a confluence, as we sometimes do, between secular observances and our Jewish calendar. For just three days after International Women’s Day we celebrate Purim, a holiday in which the accomplishments of women are pivotal to the story.

International Women’s Day was made formal by the United Nations in the 1970s in order to mark women’s contribution to global society, but its roots go deeper, stemming from an initial observance in New York marking a strike of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. It was then observed primarily through Socialist and Communist sponsorship throughout the world, linked up with women’s labor. When the UN made it official, that body offered a theme as a focus each year; this year’s theme is women and work.

Today it is an opportunity to celebrate and uphold the contribution women make to our world, especially in the field of political advocacy. In this day in which the political awareness of so many, especially women, has been reignited, it is fitting that this day be marked as such. With the recent defeat of the first woman to potentially become US President, we are reminded how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.

Indeed, the organizers of the Women’s March, which took place in Washington DC and across the country the day after the inauguration, have adopted International Women’s Day as a Day Without A Women general strike, in which women are meant to refrain from going to work and engaging in commerce in society in order to demonstrate the great role women play in society and the impact such an absence will have on communities.

The holiday of Purim, that we celebrate beginning on sundown on Saturday night, is, perhaps, the first International Women’s Day, as the story contains two women who act in defiance of the existing political structures in order to bring about systematic change. The first of course is Esther, for whom the biblical book in which we find the story of Purim is named. In the story, the King of Persia, Ahasuerus, is convinced by his adviser Haman that the Jews of the kingdom are a threat and must be destroyed. The King is agreeable to the plan and proceeds until his Queen, Esther, intervenes. She herself is Jewish, and she pleads that her people should be spared.

The scene in the text is fraught with tension, and Esther must defy certain conventions to even talk to the king. She here is an example of defying the odds and making demands of humanity and justice to a government that is seemingly oriented in the opposite way.

But we also remember that Esther became queen only after Vashti, the king’s previous wife, was banished from the kingdom. Ahasuerus had demanded that Vashti make an appearance at a royal banquet in order to show her off to those assembled, and Vashti refused to go.

Vashti stood up to an unjust and demeaning order by refusing to adhere to it, and instead absented herself despite the risk of punishment. (Day Without A Woman general strike?) While Esther enacted her defiance through her speaking out, Vashti enacted her defiance through her civil disobedience.

Both the these women’s actions advance the story of Purim, and have the effect of, in specific, saving the Jewish people from certain destruction, and, in general, bringing to the kingdom a greater sense of justice and respect for all of its citizens.

As we mark International Women’s Day, and we celebrate Purim, we honor the role these two women Vashti and Esther played in the story. And they serve as an inspiration to us, not only in our need to recognize the role women play in the advancement of society, but in recognizing that both of the actions of these women—absence and presence, silent civil disobedience and vocal appeals to power—are tactics that we can employ in working to make a more just world.

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