Women’s History Month: The History of Strong Women

By Nick Westbrooks

Bishop John R. Bryant, the Presiding Prelate of the Fourth Episcopal District and Senior Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and also the father of the Rev. Dr. Jamal Harrison Bryant recently preached at a recent Sunday chapel service at Howard University. As it was the first Sunday in March, Bishop Bryant’s sermon correlated with the start of Women’s History Month. His message entitled “The History of Strong Women,” told the story of Queen Vashti’s strength and highlighted the strength of other influential women in our history while encouraging women now to build on their legacies.

The first chapter in the book of Esther discusses King Xerxes, a dominant leader of great power and wealth who “ruled over 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush” (v.1 NIV). After a six-month exhibition displaying the “vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor of his glory,” he held a weeklong banquet (Bryant called it a party) for “all the people from the least to the greatest, who were in the citadel of Susa.” Meanwhile, his wife Queen Vashti held a banquet for the women. (v.4-5, 9).

Xerxes had an endless supply of fine wine and encouraged his guests to drink liberally as he did the same. On the seventh day of the banquet while in “high spirits from wine,” the king ordered his servants to bring Vashti before him so she could “display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at” (v.10-11). Providing commentary, Bryant emphasized that all of the men partying with Xerxes were drunk, and he was requesting that his wife –who was required to “walk in modesty”—parade herself in front of his guests.

Putting this point into perspective, Bryant asserts that Xerxes is objectifying and reducing his wife to a thing rather than a person. Upon receiving the king’s command, Vashti refuses to come, and the king becomes angry (v. 11-12). After his wife’s defiant act, Xerxes consults his law experts to decide what should be done to Vashti for disobeying the king’s command. The king feared that all women would become aware of Vashti’s conduct and begin despising their husbands. As a result, Vashti lost her crown and was permanently banished from King Xerxes’ presence.

Despite losing her royal position and her marriage, Vashti had enough strength to “stand for her personhood” according to Bryant. In the genealogy of strong women, he also mentioned individuals like Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Dorothy Height and Rosa Parks. These are all strong women that we should admire, but the bishop argued that we should go beyond veneration and not wait for the next comparable woman to liberate us.

It’s not enough to celebrate greatness. We must emulate it. We must be who we are in search of.

It’s currently a crucial time for everyone to study and pay homage to strong women in history, not only because it’s Women’s History Month, but because we live in a society beleaguered with sexism, misogyny and objectification that continues to be fueled by ignorance and misinformation. Men should learn the history of strong women to correct the falsehoods and stereotypes that have traditionally characterized women as weak, irrational and inferior. This may help to promote a new culture of giving women the respect and love they deserve. Women should learn the history of their strength to rise out of mediocrity, love and revere themselves, become the greatness that they seek and demand respect just as Vashti stood strong for her personhood.