Forgotten Women in the Megillah, and in Politics

While it is always worth rejoicing in Jewish survival, we cannot ignore the more troubling undertones of Megillat Esther in its depiction of women and their sexuality.

Despite wielding some political power, both Queen Vashti and Queen Esther are stripped of their personal sexual autonomy (if they ever had it in the first place). After Vashti is deposed because of her refusal to display her beauty before the king and his guests, the king becomes lonely and decrees a beauty pageant of sorts.

Young women—specifically, virgins— are gathered from all of the 127 provinces of the realm and put under the watch of a eunuch before spending the night with the king. This is when we meet our heroine, Esther, who is quite literally taken from her home and brought to the king’s harem. As were, presumably, most, if not all, girls and women there.

In the harem, all the women are rubbed for six months with oil of myrrh before their intimate meetings with the king. Myrrh was a known contraceptive in the ancient Mediterranean, understood to prevent the implantation of fertilized eggs, similar to some modern contraceptives like the hormonal IUD. The “aromatic ointments” may also have been used in service of pregnancy prevention. None of these girls and women were asked if they wanted this contraceptive treatment, but “whatever she asked for would be given” for her visit with the king. The women in the harem had agency only in regards to sexually pleasing the king; they could determine how they went about sex with the king, but they could not opt out. And even then, after the king tries them out, the women don’t get to go home. They are kept in a second harem until the king summons them again—or not. It makes narrative sense that the text doesn’t tell us what happens next for these women and instead focuses on Esther’s success story.

But what doesn’t sit well with me is the dearth of midrash, or rabbinic legend, that tells their stories. Even in a genre devoted to analyzing and providing literary context for every word in our holy texts, the rabbis never return to the unnamed women (at least not in any well-known collection of text). If we say that every person is a world unto themselves, how many worlds have we ignored by ignoring these women? In our focus on Esther’s victory and Vashti’s assault, we forget those who are left behind.

In the months since the Dobbs decision, feminists with economic and social privilege have bemoaned losing access to safe and legal abortions—too often, without acknowledging that this was long the real- ity for many. Despite the disproportionate impact that restrictive abortion laws have on those with marginalized identities, mainstream feminist discourse—news articles and Instagram posts alike—often overlooks those without structural power when talking about abortion. Even progressive news outlets and media glide over the stories of Black, Indigenous, and people of color, of trans and nonbinary folks, of people with disabilities, of youth, of those who struggle to make ends meet, or who live in rural communities.

Just as in the Purim story, it is much easier to remember the victors—to remember Esther and how she subverted expectations to save her people—it is much easier to focus on the victory that Roe symbolized than it is to tell the stories of those people for whom Roe made no difference. In our focus on Esther’s victory and Vashti’s assault, we forget those who are left behind. We forget to tell the stories of the women in the harem whose lives were permanently disrupted—without catharsis.

NAIMA HIRSCH GELMAN, Lilith online, February 2023.