Samantha Sine
Argumentative/Persuasive Essay
The Feminist Reader’s Reaction to Hope Leslie
Feminism is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as, “the theory of the
political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” (
While reading Hope Leslie, the reader can sense a feminist tone within the representation
of the female characters that criticizes the patriarchal society of seventeenth-century New
England. Throughout the years, criticism and analysis of Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s
novel Hope Leslie has continuously mentioned various feminist elements within her
writing. It can be argued that Sedgwick’s background influenced the feminist tone that
criticized the patriarchal authority and society of the Puritans in the early America. First,
Sedgwick was an independent woman herself, and chose to live a life that was not widely
accepted during her lifetime. According to American Passages, “Sedgwick never married,
choosing instead to devote herself to her writing and to caring for her parents and
brothers” ( Her life as a single female, during the critical seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, when an old maid was shunned by society, explains to the reader
why she criticizes women who live their lives in obedience to their patriarchal law in her
use of language in Hope Leslie. In addition, her criticism of the patriarchal society of the
Puritans in early America can be explained by her own experience with the Puritans and
their beliefs. According to American Passages, “Like many of her siblings, she renounced
her parents' strict Calvinist faith for the tolerance and religious freedoms of the Unitarian
Church, which she joined in 1821” ( Her dislike for the strict rules of the
Calvinist Church, associated with the Puritans, is evident within her depiction of the
negative affect the Puritans patriarchal authority had on women’s development of their
identity. Furthermore, the large amount of responsibilities that were imposed upon her as
a young girl, due to her gender, explain why she feels the need to be an independent
woman, rather than a homemaker, and illustrates this in her strong female characters such
as Hope Leslie and Magawisca. According to Connie King, “As a child in Stockbridge,
Massachusetts, Catharine Sedgwick took much of the responsibility for running her
family's household, as her mother suffered from periods of insanity and invalidism”
( Sedgwick had already experienced the oppressed life as a female
under patriarchal authority, in a society dominated by males, and this explains to the
reader why she seems to illustrate, in the narrative of Hope Leslie, a bias in her approval
of women who live in a manner that opposes the beliefs of the Puritans in regards to
female social roles. Furthermore, as a result of her upbringing, Sedgwick weaves
elements of feminism throughout Hope Leslie that reflect her disapproval of the gender
codes the Puritans forced upon females during the seventeenth-century in early New
England. Within Hope Leslie, Sedgwick’s feminist tone, in her disapproving of the
Puritan’s patriarchal society, is illustrated within the unique way the female protagonists
form their identities as a result of their rejection of the patriarchal authority.
In Hope Leslie, Sedgwick illustrates a feminist criticism of patriarchal law in
Hope Leslie’s rejection of the unjust decisions of the patriarchal system, and how her
voice of reason and compassion is punished by the patriarchy. First, when a Native
American woman named Nelema saves the life of Hope’s tutor, Cradock, she is arrested
for her use of herbal remedies on his snakebite, that the Puritan’s patriarchal society
views as witchcraft. When the local magistrates agree that she is “worthy of death; but as
the authority of the magistrates does not extend to life, limb or banishment, her fate is
referred to the court of Boston” (Hope Leslie 109). Hope Leslie does not understand why
it is just that Nelema is being persecuted for saving someone’s life, and that her
punishment for using herbal remedies makes her eligible for death. Her opinion acts as
the voice of reason to the feminist reader who disagrees with the unjust system of the
patriarchal governance. She acts on her beliefs, and frees Nelema from jail so that she can
escape the risk of being punished by death for a crime that she feels doesn’t even exist.
However, she is sent to live with the Winthrops due to her defiance of the rules and laws
of the patriarchy, so that she may learn the “pious instruction and counsel” (Hope Leslie
114) from Mrs. Winthrops, and respect for the patriarchy within the presence of
Governor Winthrop. It is especially ironic that Hope is condemned for being passionate
within her reasonable beliefs by Governor Winthrop as, “She hath not…that passiveness,
that, next to godliness, is woman’s best virtue” (Hope Leslie 153). Sedgwick criticizes
the hypocritical nature of the patriarchal system in the way Hope Leslie’s valiant actions
are condemned, because she is a female who acted against a male-dominated society.
Next, Hope Leslie recognizes the unjust arrest of Magawisca’s by her Puritan,
patriarchal society, especially in the way they arrest her on the basis of rumor. Also, she
disagrees with the manner of Governor Winthrop and that his morality is clouded with
the patriarchal authority’s rules. Winthrop feels that he adheres to Magawisca’s mother’s
request to prevent her from being subjected to harm, by making her wait one month until
she has to attend court where she will receive her fate. In addition, Hope is frustrated and
disgusted that the authorities do not acknowledge her courageous act of compassion for
the white man, in saving Everell Fletcher, and that they cannot show her compassion for
the Indian in return. Once again Hope Leslie illustrates the voice of reason against the
patriarchal law, and acts upon her beliefs by helping Magawisca escape from jail.
According to Sylvia Roach Terrill Peel, “"Sedgwick chooses legal trials as the settings in
which she dramatizes the Puritan authorities' inability to cope with situations where
moral and legal justice are in conflict” ( Hope Leslie illustrates the moral
justice that the patriarchal system is lacking in their strict adherence to legality, in her
acting upon her beliefs once again and being punished for her act of humanity by the
patriarchs of the governing society. Overall, Hope Leslie’s humane, voice of reason, and
intolerance for injustice in the legal system of her patriarchal society, illustrates
Sedgwick’s feminist criticism of the Puritan’s patriarchal system.
The way that Sedgwick illustrates Magawisca as the voice of reason for Native
Americans, in the way she addresses the prejudice of the colonists in their unfair
treatment and view of Native Americans by the patriarchal society. Furthermore, it
illustrates Sedgwick’s criticism of the law system being controlled by men, because once
again a woman is illustrated as the voice of reason among the unjust voices of male
dominated law. First, when confronted with the prejudice and fear of Hope Leslie, when
she panics about her sister’s marriage to a Native American, Magawisca addresses her
stereotype and corrects her. As a result, Hope Leslie acknowledges her prejudice and
renounces her statement. Magawisca’s voice of reason is illustrated when she states,
An Indian! Exclaimed Magawisca, recoiling with a look of proud contempt, that
showed she reciprocated with full measure, the scorn expressed for her race. ‘Yes-
an Indian, in whose veins runs the blood of the strongest, the fleetest of the
children of the forest, who never turned their backs on friends or enemies, and
whose souls have returned to the Great Spirit, stainless as they came from him.
Think ye that your blood will be corrupted by mingling with this stream. (Hope
Leslie 188)
In addition, Magawisca exposes Sir Phillip Gardner for the true religious beliefs he held,
and his keeping of a mistress disguised as a boy. However, her brave accounts of his
mistreatment and true intentions for the people of Bethel still did not reprieve her of all
her charges. She is treated unjustly, even after exposing Sir Phillip for his true nature, for
being a Native American. This is illustrated in the novel when the narrator states,
The Governor replied, with a severe gravity, ominous to the knight, that the
circumstances he had alluded to certainly required explanation; if that should not
prove satisfactory, they would demand a public investigation. In the mean time,
he should suspend the trial of the prisoner, who, though the decision of her case
might not wholly depend on the establishment of Sir Phillip’s testimony, was yet,
at present, materially affected by it. (Hope Leslie 292)
Magawisca is mistreated due to her race, because it is not just that she should not be
released due to her connection to the court case of Sir Phillip Gardner now brought forth.
Her response to the patriarchal authority’s decision illustrates her voice of reason in
illustrating how the colonists way of punishment, war tactics, and death is worse than
those of Native Americans on colonists. Her voice of reason, and criticism of the
Puritan’s patriarchal authority, is illustrated when she states, “Ye will even now condemn
me to death, but death more slow and terrible than your most suffering captive ever
endured from Indian fires and knives” (Hope Leslie 293). Overall, Magawisca’s being the
voice of reason that illustrates the prejudice of the colonists is reflective of Sedgwick’s
feminist critique that the patriarchal society is flawed in its dependence on legality over
morality. While the female protagonists’ adherence to morality above legality illustrates
the flawed nature of patriarchal authority, the absence of a matriarch in both of their lives
illustrates the reasoning for their unique identification with female gender roles in a
patriarchal society.
Sedgwick’s feministic criticism of Puritan women’s submission to the inequality
of gender roles is evident within her choice to have both female protagonists develop
without a biological mother. Her reasoning for the absence of a maternal influence on
both females, during the critical period in their lives when they begin to develop an
understanding of their gender roles in society, reflects her disapproval of the seventeenthcentury, matriarchs’ submissive conditioning of their daughters. In sum, I believe she felt
that it was important for women to develop an assertive approach to patriarchal authority
early in life, to avoid acceptance of inequality later on. In addition, Sedgwick
disapproved of those females who were content with the inequality of gender roles, and
that is why she eliminated the mothers, or main sources of influence, to ensure that the
female protagonists exemplify the opposite characteristics of traditional seventeenthcentury women. According to Judith Fetterly, “In this text, then, whose pre-text includes
not only the removal of Hope’s biological mother but also of her potential surrogate
mother, Mrs. Fletcher, the attack on Republican motherhood implicit in the violence of
Mrs. Fletcher’s removal extends even to narrative strategy, for in Hope Leslie there will
be no ‘mother voice’ to cover and contain the daughter” (Rhetoric 497). Both Magawisca
and Hope Leslie’s mothers die in the novel, and even Hope’s prospective maternal
influence, Martha Fletcher, is murdered. Sedgwick’s reasoning for omitting the biological
mother from both Magawisca and Hope’s lives was to illustrate how independence from
a matriarch’s influence allows young females to form an assertive role in society, rather
than a submissive one. I believe that the following personal opinion of Sedgwick
illustrates why she eliminates the maternal influence to ensure the females are free from
major submissive influence when she states, “I believe, my dear Alice, that the people
who surround us in our childhood, whose atmosphere enfolds us, as it were, have more to
do with the formation of our characters than all our didactic and perceptive education”
( Therefore, Sedgwick feels that by eliminating the strong
influence a mother has on her daughter’s permanent character, both women are able to
develop according to their own influence. During the eighteenth-century, there arose an
ideology that was called “The Cult of Womanhood.” According to Catherine Lavender,
“This ideal of womanhood had essentially four parts--four characteristics any good and
proper young woman should cultivate: piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness”
( With the likelihood of seventeenth-century females being
conditioned to submit to the “Cult of Womanhood,” regardless of the type of patriarchal
society they belong to, Sedgwick wished to create a unique depiction of seventeenthcentury females in opposition to this idea of the “Cult of Womanhood.” Sedgwick’s
feminist tone in her rejection of the “Cult of Womanhood’s” model of an upstanding
woman is illustrated in her removal of maternal influence on the development of the
female protagonists’ societal roles.
In analyzing Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s novel Hope Leslie, I gathered that
Sedgwick’s rejection of the Puritan’s patriarchal authority and society was mainly due to
the unequal treatment of women, and failure to use morality when making decisions.
However, I believe Sedgwick sought to illustrate how women make up for all that the
patriarchal society lacks, in her illustration of Magawisca and Hope Leslie. The way in
which the females develop an autonomous identity, due to their disapproval of the
governance of the patriarchal law, illustrates Sedgwick’s feminist opinion that women
could be empowered and viewed as equals if they did not submit to the patriarchal
authority. Which leads to Sedgwick’s disdain and disapproval of those Puritan women
who lead a submissive, obedient lifestyle and conditioned generations of women to
accept the inequality of their gender in a patriarchal society. Overall, I feel that Catharine
Maria Sedgwick’s novel, Hope Leslie, illustrates the importance of feminism to women
of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in obtaining equality in a society ruled by men.
The American Literary Blog. Ed. Victoria Clements. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Oct. 2011.
American Passages: A Literary Survey. Web. 5 Oct. 2011.
Fetterley, Judith. My Sister! My Sister!: The Rhetoric of Catharine Sedgwick's Hope
Leslie. American Literature Vol. 70, No.3, Sept. 1998. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.
Lavender, Catherine. The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood. 16 Feb. 2010.
Web. 9 Oct. 2011.
Merriam Webster Online Dictionary. Web. 1 Oct. 2011. <www.m>
Peel, Sylvia Roach Terrill. Images of Men: Male Characters in Catharine Maria
Sedgwick's Hope Leslie. Aug. 1998. Web. 5 Oct. 2011.
Portraits of American Women Writers. Ed. Connie King. 2005. Web. 3 Oct. 2011.
Sedgwick, Catharine. Hope Leslie. Massachusetts: Library of Congress Cataloging, 1827.
1-350. Print