I wish I could have heard California State Senator Janet Nguyen the first time she tried to speak on behalf of millions of Vietnamese refugees. But I didn’t, because when she took the Senate floor last week in Sacramento, she was abruptly interrupted, cut off and then, shockingly, physically removed from the podium. The (feeble) reason cited was that she was out of order and in violation of senate procedure. While the Senate President later issued an apology after public outcry, the disturbing incident nevertheless bears an uncomfortable imprint we have come to know: that of a woman attempting to speak in public, only to be silenced by a man (and a lame excuse).
We witnessed the same pattern unfold last month with the now infamous exchange between Senators Mitch McConnell and Elizabeth Warren. Senator Warren, attempting to read the words of Coretta Scott King in opposition to the confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions, was brazenly and reprehensibly silenced by her male colleague. His words about her, “nevertheless, she persisted,” quickly became a meme. But it’s notable that the very same letter Senator Warren tried to read was later read by a handful of other male senators, without a single objection. When all is said and done, the silencing of Senator Warren and also Senator Nguyen after her, is less about them violating some arcane Senate code, and more about them being, simply, women: outspoken, unapologetic women.
And this is nothing new. Power and danger have always accompanied the woman who stands up and speaks her mind. In fact, today’s headlines surrounding Senators Warren and Nguyen remind me of our age-old Purim story, and the two powerful women—Queen Vashti and Queen Esther—at its core. Take Queen Vashti, the first queen in our Purim story; she understood this motif all too well. When King Ahashverosh asked her to parade herself at a palace banquet in nothing but her royal diadem, she flatly and fiercely refused.
In the story, Vashti refuses to relinquish her decency in order to satiate the king’s indecent proposals. She won’t sacrifice her dignity in service of the king’s perverse desires. Vashti stands up for herself, and she pushes back against the man who would gladly debase her in front of his lewd and lascivious cronies. Even in the face of the king’s burning rage and vengeful insecurity, Vashti holds firm.
Vashti’s rejection of the king is promptly met with her swift and decisive removal. She is seen as a threat to the women of the kingdom, tinder to the flame of female rebellion that lay under the surface. And thus she is banished, or perhaps worse. But while her character may exit the narrative, her legacy of resistance and self-assurance remains something we remember.
Nor can we forget the other powerful woman in the Purim story. Keep in mind that the crux of the Purim play is the moment when Esther, knowing that the fate of the Jewish people lies in her hands, decides to risk her life by speaking up and revealing her Jewish identity to the king. It is a moment of absolute, unshrinking courage in the face of untold personal jeopardy. Thus when Esther resolves to enter the King’s chambers, she is already a hero. She may be queen, but she is still a woman, approaching the king, uninvited. In doing so, Esther not only risks her position, but also her life. As her voice breaks the silence, the suspense is palpable.
Will she live or will she die?
When we raise our voices in public, the stakes may not be as extreme, but the challenges we face are often just as difficult. Despite the strides we have made in the world, we still go head to head with gender bias each and every day. What we saw happen to Senators Warren and Nguyen, a motif that’s repeated over and over in the headlines, is a trope of invalidation, a drumbeat of dismissal. When a woman speaks, so the messaging goes, she can be interrupted without consequence. She can be spoken over without reprimand. She can even be banished from sight.
But even as Senators Warren and Nguyen were expelled, both came roaring back. Like Queen Esther and Queen Vashti, they are warrior women, speaking truth to power and carrying on a legacy of strength and unwavering determination. In the end, Senators Warren and Nguyen each found ways to make their voices heard—above the din of sexism, above the prattle of slander, and above every other force that would strive to drown them out. Like Esther, they found an audience not only tolerant of their words, but eager for them. And also like Esther, they just might have changed the course of history. So while the struggle to be heard nevertheless remains, as Vashti could certainly attest, Vashti would also remind us that speaking up is half the battle.
This year, Purim is closely preceded on the calendar by International Women’s Day. For 2017, the theme is “Be Bold For Change.” I can think of no better models for bold action than Senators Warren and Nguyen today, and Queens Vashti and Esther in our tradition. They are all powerful examples of tenacious women who fight for the very values that define and drive International Women’s Day: justice and dignity, equality and respect, collaboration and appreciation, empathy and hope.
When we mark Purim this year, may we continue to draw strength from all the Vashtis and Esthers, and all the Senator Warrens and Senator Nguyens in our lives. And may our Purim celebrations be a rallying cry for all women who resist and persist, for all women who muster the courage to speak their minds, and for all women who refuse to be silenced.