In the time period when The Scarlet Letter takes place, there was no such thing as a feminist in the modern sense, yet Hester’s character combines traditional ideas of feminine behavior with a free-thinking and rebellious perspective that can be seen as kind of precursor to later feminist philosophy. When the reader first sees her, Hester is described as a beautiful new mother who resembles the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary is the ultimate symbol of female piety, but she is also, like Hester, a woman who conceived a child out of wedlock. Hester has similarly defied convention, but in her case the implication is that she has engaged in sex for pleasure, not just procreation. She further defies her community by refusing to name the baby’s father. Since the authorities of her society are all men, this refusal is the one kind of power Hester can assert. The authorities can punish her, but they cannot force her to reveal her secret. In claiming the one form of power available to her – the power to keep a secret – Hester displays a feminist agency over her own life.
Hester’s reaction to her punishment might seem the model of feminine obedience, but in fact contains an element of rebellion and radicalism in her self-sufficiency and determination to keep her child. She is a devoted mother and her skilled needlework aligns her with a traditional female occupation that was viewed as appropriate and respectable. But her status as a single working mother, completely responsible for the well-being of her daughter but also free to raise Pearl however she likes, makes Hester a model of female self-reliance. Similarly, her seclusion and independence allow her to question ideas that most people take for granted: “The scarlet letter was her passport into regions which other women dared not tread.” She comes to see that many of the expectations and ideas that govern how people behave actually serve no purpose other than to create social control. In particular, Hester realizes that women are treated unfairly and often live unhappy lives as a result: “The very nature of the opposite sex…is to be essentially modified, before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position.”
Hester expresses feminist tendencies when she asks Dimmesdale to leave New England and begin a new life with her and Pearl, but her eventual return to her community proves an ultimately more fitting statement of independence and personal liberation. While talking to Dimmesdale, Hester tears off the scarlet letter and takes off her cap to let her hair down, symbolizing her rejection of society’s attempts to control her. While the scarlet letter is a punishment designed specifically for her, any respectable woman of the era would have worn a cap, so Hester is rejecting all of the ways that women are subjected to patriarchal control: “Her sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty came back.” Yet despite this rebellious behavior, the novel ends with Hester voluntarily returning to New England, and continuing wearing the scarlet letter. This hardly seems like a feminist act of rebellion. But in wearing the letter out of choice, not obligation, Hester actually continues her feminist self-determination. As she goes on to support other women who are struggling in the community, she extends her personal liberation to others suffering under the patriarchy. In living the life she chooses, Hester embodies powerful ideas about female agency and equality.