Nowadays, many readers try to read Hester Prynne as a feminist prototype. They admire her strength and rebelliousness. Hawthorne, however, seemed either to know little about or to care little for feminism.
I'm wondering if Hawthorne and his readers would have read her as willful and reckless. Certainly she learns from her mistakes, but I don't think they would have seen her as a proponent of women's rights and free love the way some readers nowadays take her.
I must agree with mwestwood here. I, too, see Hester as a feminist. Given that she stands up for her own individual beliefs and refuses to speak on the father of her child, Hester is the epitome of a feminist. She does not feel challenged by the men who require her answer. She wears her strength with pride. Hester means to remove herself from a society which demoralizes and lessens the worth of women.
Not in accord with your stance is Chapter XIII in which Hester ponders the state of women, thinking that "the world's law was no law for her mind." Because of her scarlet letter, Hester has been permitted to stand apart from others and "assume a freedom of speculation."
"In the education of her child, the mother's enthusisasm of thought had something to wreak itself upon." She begins to question her existence as a woman. Hester perceives the role of women as modified, wondering when they can participate in society as an equal member. She feels that women cannot profit from any reforms
...until she herself shall have undergone a still mightier change; in which, perhaps, the ethereal essence, wherein she has her truest life, will be found to have evaporated.
Clearly, Hester is a feminist, an independent thinker, who does not foresee change for women until they can become recognized as individuals on their own.
I think that Hawthorne had some sympathy for Hester, because he does make her a strong character. Her actions after her child was born show her real strength of character.
Thanks all. To tell you the truth, I always read Hester as a feminist before her time. But the more I read the book, and the more I read his shorter tales, I think Hawthorne's attitude towards Hester is more complex. I agree that the writing at the end of The Scarlet Letter makes her out to be a feminist, and based on one book I've read, Hawthorne's style at times echoes the work of Margaret Fuller, a nineteenth-century feminist. He also compares Hester to Ann Hutchinson in an earlier chapter of TSL.
But I think Hawthorne is also saying that her past mistakes, or "sins," can't entirely be put away, either. In raising Pearl, I think she recognizes her own passionate and rebellious nature. Furthermore, in the scene at the brook near the end, Hester removes her "A" and says "Let us not look back...The past is gone! Wherefore should we linger on it now?" Pearl, however, will not return to her mother until Hester refastens the scarlet letter. Hawthorne's point seems to be that Hester can't put the past behind her.
So those comments at the end of TSL seem ambiguous to me. I think a more radical feminist would leave Boston (or in this case, the Massachusetts Bay Colony) behind for good. But Hester decides to come back.
(And just for kicks, consider that Joan Didion once compared Hester Prynne to Temple Drake from Faulkner's Sanctuary.)