What does Grimm’s fairy story tell us about women leaders?

A few weeks ago we celebrated International Women’s Day. Throughout stories of women were broadcast on a plethora of platforms and we were offered a combination of inspiring successes and reminders that there is still much that needs to change.

I’m a woman and a leader and the narrative threads that run through me run through women’s identities generally. There are feelings of pride, joy, power, accomplishment and thankfulness mixing with disappointment, sadness, weakness, and anger. Like anybody I wish to achieve my dreams and hopes, and want the dreams to be the right ones, rooted in values I can live with and take pride in sharing with others. But when reflecting on this I’m reminded of the philosopher Adorno writing about wish-fulfillment:

‘The fulfillment of the wishes takes something away from the substance of the wishes, as in the fairy-tale where the farmer is granted three wishes, and, I believe, he wishes his wife to have a sausage on her nose and then must use the second wish to have the sausage removed from her nose. In other words, one could perhaps say in general that the fulfillment of utopia consists largely only in a repetition of the continually same “today”.’

Well, if that’s true then it’s depressing. Nothing will change. I don’t think that’s right. I want to offer a different view. And, like Adorno, I want to draw on folk and fairy tales to illustrate my point of view. This may seem strange, but bear with me.

So, what do we know about the Brothers Grimm’s collection of fairy stories? The brothers collected oral tales mainly but exclusively from women of the time and put them in a book for the first time in 1812. The stories were strange, uncanny and slightly uncivilized. They were certainly not aimed at children.

They took the perspective of the underdog and challenged the immorality and unkindness of cruel authorities and bullies. They recognized that in the real world such cruelty and unfairness was common and that it was only in the story that defeating such things was guaranteed.

The original collection comprises animal tales, legends, tall tales, nonsense stories, fables, anecdotes, jokes, magic and an enchanted, belligerent insolence that talks truth to power without constraint. They are narratives of anonymous free-speech, free-thought, the speech often of wounded young people fighting brutal parents, small animals fighting dangerous predators and poor people fighting spiteful rulers. Greedy people are punished. Kindness and innocence are rewarded. They are stories of the dispossessed and badly treated who decide to do something about their situation. They were stories told by women in the main.

The situations are usually dark and disturbing because the original women telling the stories were living lives that in reality were imperiled and constantly under threat. Who can doubt that for millions of women this is still their reality. The beginning of the story ‘Good Bowling and Card Playing’ in the original Grimms collection goes:

‘Now, there was a young man from a poor family who thought to himself, “Why not risk my life? I’ve got nothing to lose and a lot to win. What’s there to think about?’

This is as true, as abandoned and as high a moment of speech as any to be found anywhere. And if you want to understand women in leadership then take on board the fierce sentiment expressed there. Women historically have had little to lose but their subservience. A woman leader is responding to this.

For many people, and for many women in particular, this remains the starting point. A woman leader is there as a result of a process well understood and captured in the fierce original stories collected in 1812 by these two incredible brothers.

But we might be forgiven for not understanding the point because the stories have been changed. Originally Grimm’s fairy tales were underdog stories told of integrity being tested and innocence and kindness being rewarded. The underdogs are proved to be smarter, more courageous, more tenacious and more powerful than their masters because of powers coming from generosity, giving and love rather than greed, selfishness and jealousy.

The women in ‘The Three Little Men in the Forest’, ‘Maiden without Hands’, ‘The Robber Bridesgroom’, ‘Princess Mousekin’ and ‘The Clever Farmer’s Daughter’ all subvert the old patriarchal values and triumph through swift action and thought, pulling the ground from beneath their master’s feet in order to reach a better, fairer place.

These are the narratives that I think illustrate my own take on women’s leadership. We are there because we’ve had to subvert, challenge, outwork, outthink, undermine and fight. ‘Puss in Boots’ is a good example of how what is important is the moral pulse of its strange counter world. A supernatural cat persuades the king that his poor peasant master is worthy of the King’s daughter. Some say this is a ‘rise tale’ but the peasant who gets the girl is not its focus.

It’s the cat (sometimes a fox, in Straparola a fairy, in Perrault a King’s messenger). Its about brains and cunning exposing the contradictions and pretentions of bigoted cruel masters. It’s a story found all over Europe, the Middle East, North and South Asia, North Africa and North America. To me, women leaders are the supernatural cats of the story.

But something happened to these stories. These original narratives have been altered. The process started even during the lifetime of the Grimms. Indeed, it seems that they were involved in the process to some extent. Later editions started to delete certain stories. Some went because they were deemed too grotesque, too rude, too subversive of the ruling order. Others because they were Foreign.

Some stories stayed but were changed: Rapunzel originally was a story about pregnancy but this element was deleted in later versions, and in ‘Little Snow White’ and ‘Hansel and Gretel’ the mothers were changed into stepmothers because for the Grimms mothers were sacred. All rebellious spirits were extracted from the stories. They were distorted to show the cruel masters in a better light.

And then an Englishman Edgar Taylor came along and translated them into English and claimed that they were stories for children, that they came from peasants and were German. They weren’t any of those things, but the claims stuck. From 1823 onwards the tales were taken across the English speaking world and in particular to America where they became further distorted and lost their original meanings in the reworking of Disney and others. Women and the underclasses lost their powers. Heroines became helpless, passive, obedient and industrious rather than assertive, confident and courageous.

And so now I want to stand back and ask you this: which narrative are you comfortable with? The old narrative of the original Grimm collection whose heroines speak truth to power, is active, brave, confident and on the side of kindness and generosity? Or the new one where she is passive, cowardly and nervously on the side of greed and power at all costs?

Ironically, I think too many women leaders are treated as if they are betraying this second version by trying to live up to the first. But as I’ve shown above that’s to get the sequence the wrong way round. We all need to get on board with those original impulses because then everyone but the bullies and the greedy can thrive.

I think anyone can see that this generalizes to all leaders everywhere. Kindness, bravery and caring aren’t the preserve of women but are the values all leadership should enforce and embody everywhere and for everyone.