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March 1, 2012
Jewish women have come a long way since the days of Esther, the heroine of the Purim story whose bravery and guile saved the Jewish people from annihilation at the hands of the Persians.
But even as we celebrate this Jewish victory, we must acknowledge that we've still got a long way to go to achieve true equality for women.
There is much to celebrate. Women have achieved unprecedented gains across the personal, professional and communal realms.
The past several decades have seen a tremendous growth in the number of female rabbis and scholars. The Bat Mitzvah is
celebrating its 90th anniversary this month, with a nod to Judith Kaplan, the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who took the revolutionary step of calling his daughter to read from the Torah. Decades later, opportunities for Jewish learning among girls and women have never been greater.
Still, all is not well on the feminist front. Hadassah may be celebrating its 100th year, but it is still one of the few national organizations that is headed by a woman. For the past three years, the Forward has surveyed national Jewish groups to chart the disparity in position and pay between males and females.
Last year, only nine of the 76 organizations surveyed were led by women. The wage gap in the Jewish world is also dismal, with female CEOs earning slightly more than 62 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. In both pay and position, the Jewish organizational world lags behind the general non-profit world.
Despite significant gains in the religious realm across the streams, Jewish women still suffer under certain circumstances. The ongoing case of Tamar Epstein, a local Orthodox woman whose husband refuses to grant her a get, or Jewish divorce, is a case in point. While the problem of agunot, or chained women, is widespread, in this instance, the religious authorities are trying to pressure the recalcitrant husband -- but to no avail.
Maybe it's time to reintroduce the next generation to Queen Vashti, the unsung feminist of the Purim story. It was her refusal to debase herself before the king and his court that led to her demise, the search for a new queen and Esther's ascent to the throne. She may not have been Jewish but she paved the way for a Jewish heroine and continues to serve as a model of standing up for one's dignity and one's rights.
The threats to Jews continue, most notably from Iran, the very land in which we prevailed against Haman and the forces of evil nearly 2,500 years ago. However, even existential threats should not prevent us from focusing on a mission unfulfilled -- full equality for women. It's the least we can do as we celebrate Purim, and relish the heroism of Esther and Vashti.