"The very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified, before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position"
Satirical photograph of the unfeminine
Public DomainSatirical photograph of the unfeminine "New Woman" (c.1901) - Credit: Underwood & Underwood

Here, Hawthorne uses Hester’s introspections as a proxy for his misgivings about Margaret Fuller’s visions for the emancipation of the female sex. Though, as The Scarlet Letter shows, he was deeply sympathetic to the plight of a woman who did not conform to patriarchal expectations, he was unsettled by Fuller’s attacks on the foundations of these norms. She argued that “Male and female..are perpetually passing into one another... There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman… [Nature] sends women to battle, and sets Hercules spinning; she enables women to bear immense burdens, cold, and frost; she enables the man, who feels maternal love, to nourish his infant like a mother” (p. 108). Hawthorne is not the misogynist some have painted him but the idea of gender as a mobile quality was deeply troubling to him. His works repeatedly evince a romantic attachment to a delicate, ethereal “femininity” and his private writings are rather harsh about Fuller’s lack of this property. However, in aligning Hester’s situation with that of a prominent and highly respected nineteenth century feminist, he equates Puritan oppression with the restrictions of patriarchal Victorian society as a means of critiquing the latter. As so often in Hawthorne, progressive idealism and sentimental conservatism run in tandem.

Minerva, goddess of wisdom and war, was one of Fuller's favorite female archetypes
Public DomainMinerva, goddess of wisdom and war, was one of Fuller's favorite female archetypes - Credit: Elihu Vedder
Public Domain"Domestic Happiness" (1849) epitomizes the Victorian feminine ideal - Credit: Lily Martin Spencer