11 Books About Women’s Fairytale History

by Margaret Kingsbury

In the beginning, women told fairy tales. They told raucous fairy tales, they told subversive fairy tales, they told sexy fairy tales. They told fairy tales to stave off boredom and for the joy of creativity. Yet, in the 19th century, when fairy tales began to be collected and published to popular acclaim, women’s names were often not included. Their stories were taken–their work and labor and creativity–and they were often erased from fairytale history. 

Here are eleven works that reposition women in fairytale history as the creative storytellers they were and still are.

From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers by Marina Warner

A powerful history of Western fairytale storytellers and how women’s voices have been silenced in fairytale history. The first half traces the history of the storytellers—from 17th-18th century French literary fairytale writers like Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier and Baroness d’Aulnoy to the Grimm brother’s mainly female sources to how the image of Mother Goose and old women storytellers developed (a combination of goose symbology, Saint Anne, the sibyls, and social attitudes toward older women). The second half examines specific tales within their historical context, and what those tales would’ve meant to the tellers and listeners. For example, “Bluebeard” tales (a woman marries a rich widower and discovers, in a secret room, that he’s been murdering his past wives) reflect the historical reality that many women died young during childbirth. Many widowers remarried, and their past wives would, of course, have been a source of fear for the new bride, and the marriage bed threatening. “Bluebeard” tales served as both warning and catharsis for the women tellers and listeners.

This in-depth, heavily researched history is a fascinating look into the intersections of storytelling, fairy tales, and patriarchy

Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales by Valerie Paradiž

Clever Maids is a slim and fascinating analysis of one such case of women’s voices being suppressed. While everyone has heard of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, very few would recognize the names Dortchen Wild, Bettina von Arnim, or Dorothea Viehmann, only a few of the women who contributed stories for the Grimm brother’s collection that would become one of the most well-known collections of fairy tales ever. It’s an immensely readable book, and inspired The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth, a novel about Dortchen Wild, the fairy tales she told and why she told them, and her eventual marriage to Wilhelm Grimm.  

Wonder Tales: Six French Stories of Enchantment Edited by Marina Warner

Written during Louis XIV’s reign (late 17th-early 18th century), all but one of the six fairy tales in this collection was written by a woman. The term fairy tale, or contes de fées in French, was coined by Madame d’Aulnoy, a famous literary fairytale writer of her time but sadly under-read today. These women conteuses, or storytellers, used fairy tales as a means of critiquing patriarchal norms. This collection gives a brief glimpse into their history and a few of the tales they wrote. They’re riveting and funny reads. The tales are translated by five famous writers: John Ashbery, Gilbert Adair, Terence Cave, Ranjit Bolt, and A.S. Byatt.

Beautiful Angiola: The Lost Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales of Laura Gonzenbach by Laura Gonzenbach, Translated and Edited by Jack D. Zipes

I had not heard of this collection until researching this piece, and now it’s on my TBR. Originally collected and compiled in the 19th century, Laura Gonzenbach’s fairy tales were destroyed in the Messina earthquake of 1908. A copy of the fairy tales was found written in High German, and eminent fairytale scholar Jack Zipes translates them here. I’m looking forward to digging into them.

Beauty and the Beast Tales From Around the World Edited by Heidi Anne Heiner

Are you ready to read 188 “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tales? Who isn’t? Heidi Anne Heiner is an amazing editor who has many massive compilations of fairytale types. I chose Beauty and the Beast because so many of the tales are explicitly written by women, though not all. The tale most commonly known as “Beauty and the Beast” was first written by Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve in 1740 as a novella, and then shortened and popularized by Madame Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1757. But the literary fairy tale was inspired by many oral and literary predecessors, including one of my favorite fairy tales, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” This collection is an amazing read and an essential reference for fairytale scholars. Heiner’s edited many more collections. Another favorite of mine is Bluebeard Tales From Around the World.

The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography by Edmund Gordon

This is the only biography of Angela Carter, the writer who popularized fairytale retellings for modern audiences. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories was first published in 1979. These feminist, sexual, and disturbing tales became classics in fairytale canon, and many women writers were inspired by her to reclaim fairy tales and tell their own subversive variations. Carter lived an adventurous life traveling the world before settling in London to write. She died of cancer far too young at the age of fifty-one. 

Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales Edited by Angela Carter

In addition to writing her most famous work, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, and many other novels and short stories, Angela Carter collected and edited this volume of traditional fairy tales from around the world featuring women. Selections include well-known favorites like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Kate Crakernuts” alongside lesser-known tales like “Princess in a Suit of Leather,” an Egyptian Cinderella tale, and “Reason to Beat Your Wife,” which is more feminist than the title suggests. It’s a fun book.

Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales from Around the World Edited by Kathleen Ragan

If you’re looking for more compilations, Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters collects 100 feminist folk and fairy tales from around the world. Ragan includes extensive notes and further reading sections for anyone that wants to dig a little deeper into the tales. It is lacking in South American tales, which is a disappointment. For more South American tales, I recommend reading Latin American Folktales edited by John Bierhorst, though the collection doesn’t focus specifically on heroines (some of the tales do). Despite this lack, Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters is a wonderful collection you could linger on for months.  

Indian Legends Translated and Edited by Zitkála-Šá

Zitkála-Šá was a Sioux activist, musician, editor, translator, and much more. In 1921, she published a collection of Sioux legends and folktales she’d listened to growing up on a reservation. It’s one of the first collections of its kind. Zitkála-Šá wanted to both preserve Sioux culture and show the white population of the United States that Native Americans did indeed have a culture and traditions worthy of respect. She’s a fascinating figure from American history, and I strongly recommend picking up American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings to read her autobiography in addition to the Sioux legends and her political writings and speeches.

Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales by Virginia Hamilton, Illustrated by Leo Dillon and Diane Dillon

This collection of 25 African American folktales featuring women and girls is a must for children’s bookshelves. It’s part of a trilogy of African American folktale collections for children that Virginia Hamilton collaborated on with illustrators Leo Dillon and Diane Dillon. The other two books in the series include The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales and Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom. Her Stories won the Coretta Scott King Award and is a gorgeous collection with stunning illustrations. 

Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States by Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston is best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. She was also an anthropologist and folklorist. She studied anthropology with the famous anthropologist Franz Boas at Barnard College. In 1927, she began traveling to Florida to collect African American folktales, and in 1935, she published her first collection of these folktales–Mules and Men. Two years later, she’d write and publish Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston records these folktales using the dialects of the speakers, so it can be difficult to read these tales at first, but they’re worth it.

Also check out these contemporary women fairytale scholars: Maria Tatar (Off with Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood), Amanda Leduc (Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space), Catherine Orenstein (Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked), Cristina Bacchilega (Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies), Rebecca Solnit (Cinderella Liberator), and Kate Bernheimer (Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales).

Margaret Kingsbury writes about fantasy, science fiction, and fairy tales for Book Riot, Star Trek, and other websites, and she’s co-creator of Baby Librarians where she, a friend, and their children write about the children’s books they love. Her fairytale fiction has been published in Nonbinary Review, Devilfish Review, and Expanded Horizons, among other places. She lives in Nashville, TN with her husband, daughter, and their many, many books. Find out more on her website and follow her on Instagram @babylibrarians or Twitter @areaderlymom

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