Little Red Riding Hood and the Invisibility of Older Women

Content Warning: Discussion of Cannibalism, Sexual Assault, Violence.

How old was Little Red Riding Hood? In the earliest, 16th-century versions of the tale, she was around the age of puberty. Other details you might not know include the wolf making the girl eat her grandmother’s flesh (including her sexual organs and breasts) and drinking the old woman’s blood from a bowl before attempting to ravish the girl. But, using her guile, Little Red Riding Hood escapes, with the help of washerwomen who were working on the nearby river. This was a story about a young girl who was not ready to be initiated into the adult world of sex, represented by the wolf (and the blood), who was saved by her own resourcefulness and by a network of older women. To survive the lustful wolf, a combination of youthful wit and the wisdom of age was needed.

You might be wondering where was the woodcutter who saved Little Red Riding Hood (and, in some versions, the grandmother too). Well, he wouldn’t show up until later, effectively replacing the feminine wisdom gained through experience represented by the washerwomen with the image of a ‘good’ and brave man, in contrast to the wicked and savage wolf.

Contextualising Fairy Tales: Little Red Riding Hood in Historical Context

It is often said that fairy tales used to be much ‘darker’ stories and that they have been diluted throughout the centuries – just think of Disney’s saccharine versions of many famous tales. I think that’s too simplistic. But the changes fairy tales go through do tell us a lot about the context in which the stories are being told. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ versions – and even tracing the ‘original’ story can be a fraught task. Fairy tales often seem to exist in a world of their own: they belong to no one and to everyone, their centuries-long history creating a kaleidoscopic story in which multiple versions coexist, often contradicting themselves, and they can always be reinvented. Being atemporal is one of the many charms of these kinds of tales.

Yet stories are always created (and re-created) in a specific context; they reflect culture and are firmly grounded in a specific time and place. Fairy tales give us clues about what a society values, fears, prioritises, or considers taboo. Little Red Riding Hood was a 16th-century tale from the French countryside. It was a world in which older women were believed to possess ‘secret’ knowledge about the human body: they knew about the mysteries of childbirth and reproduction. They had ‘womb knowledge’: knowledge about the uterus, sure, but also knowledge gained through their bodily experience and sexuality, such as having children themselves. By the 18th century, the world of childbirth was rapidly changing: man-midwives (accoucheurs), surgeons, and physicians were gradually replacing traditional midwives and matrons in the birth room. Maybe it’s no coincidence that Little Red Riding Hood’s story changed: she was rescued by a strong and skilled man, instead of the washerwomen.

You might be thinking that this is a stretch – and I won’t make a case for the woodcutter’s axe being a stand-in for the man-midwife’s forceps, I promise. Still, childbirth was becoming increasingly medicalised (we could even say ‘masculinised’) in this period, and it is possible that changes in popular fairy tales reflected that change. In any case, the colour red in the story is often associated with menstruation and sex – most famously, by psychoanalysts such as Bruno Bettleheim. Although I should probably mention that there was no red cape in the earliest versions. But there was the bowl full of grandmother’s blood from which the girl drank – perhaps symbolically assimilating her adult womanhood through blood, whether from menstruation, loss of virginity, or childbirth. In this version, initiation into the adult world is connected to fertility and reproduction. Reading fairy tales as though they exist outside a specific cultural context is a pet peeve of many historians – myself included. But let’s come back to the older women.

When I started researching 16th and 17th-century recipe books – which included everything from making strawberry preserves, removing bodily hair, writing in invisible ink, and provoking an abortion – I was surprised at how many menstruation recipes I found. Much of women’s health (not to mention fertility) was connected to having regular periods, and both the quantity and quality of the blood were important factors. But, if menstruation was so central, how come I couldn’t find any recipes about menopause? Of course, the word menopause itself didn’t exist yet (it was usually just called the ‘cessation of the terms’ or the ‘end of the flowers’), but maybe I could find recipes about how to treat its symptoms…? But no, remedies to treat these women were nowhere to be found.

Menopause and Transformation: Shifting Roles of Older Women

Many older women report feeling invisible as they age – ‘Invisible Women Syndrome’ is real – and menopause is still under-discussed. In the early modern period, it was usually believed that menopause made the female body closer to the male; according to the humoral theory, the body became drier with age, which explained why there was no excessive blood to purge. Medical writers believed the womb literally shrivelled, becoming unfit for procreation. The Hippocratic theory of the seven-ages-of-man, according to which the body underwent changes every seven years, meant that menopause should be expected at around 49 years old – although writers reported it earlier or much later than that.

With age – and menopause – came facial hair, the loss of teeth, and osteoporosis, which could affect someone’s posture. It is not a coincidence that all of these characteristics were associated with witches, too. There is much overlap between gender and age where witchcraft is concerned. (You can read more about witches and old age here.) Older women could be despised, but they could also be feared. Free from the concern of accidental pregnancy, post-menopausal women’s sexuality and agency could develop beyond what society considered acceptable. Importantly, they could subvert patriarchal values, which they could transmit to young women, and stand in the way of men.

A Deeper Look at Little Red Riding Hood’s Symbolism

Let’s go back to Little Red Riding Hood. In the earliest versions of the story, attitudes about the body, sex, and age can be found everywhere. When the wolf meets the girl, he asks her which path she will take to visit her grandmother: the ‘pins’ path or the ‘needles’ one? Modern readers might imagine these words to describe different kinds of trees in both paths – maybe conifers? But there’s more to it than that. In 16th-century France, pins and needles symbolised different ages for girls. Pins are easier and younger girls would learn to use them first. Plus, they have no opening. Using needles requires time and skill – and needles are made to be penetrated by thread, in a not-very-subtle domestic metaphor for marital sex. If this sounds like a stretch, stick with me. Young girls received pins from admirers and brides received needles to celebrate their entry into adult womanhood. This means that French listeners would probably understand that this is a story about sex. 

So, depending on which version readers had access to, the lesson was different. In later retellings (such as the French version by Charles Perrault or the German one by the brothers Grimm), the girl is taught the importance of obeying her elders and not straying from the (single) expected safe path, not trusting strangers, and learning to differentiate between men who are predators and those she can trust. In the earliest, peasant incarnation, however, the girl learns to trust herself and her guile. When she becomes frightened of the wolf, she tries to leave the bed and run away, but he won’t allow her. So, the girl tells him she needs to do pipi, to which the wolf replies that she can just urinate on the bed. Eventually, Little Red Riding Hood persuades the wolf to let her go outside to relieve herself with a rope tied around her leg so she can’t run away. Once she’s out of the cottage, she ties the rope to a tree and runs towards the river. On the bank across from her, there are washerwomen working. They throw a sheet to the girl and pull her across the river and to safety. When the wolf finds out he has been fooled, he too asks the washerwomen to bring him across the river the same way they did the girl. The women comply, only to let go when the wolf is in the water, causing him to drown.

In this tale, innocence gives place to wit, and instead of a solitary male rescuer, the girl is saved by a group of women – and by herself. She is taught the importance of (female) community. Like her grandmother, the older women who help Little Red Riding Hood might be past the point where they would attract male attention – which many would see as a blessing. But through their lived, bodily experience, they have amassed important knowledge, that can be useful for those younger than them. Just like the girl correctly intuited, they know the wolf is not to be trusted.

These different readings reflect distinct societies and cultures. France in the 16th century was not the same as Germany in the 19th. Not to mention regional variations and all the changes that happened when tales told by countryside peasants were adapted to suit the urban elite. Because fairy tales are by definition ever-changing and contradictory stories, their nature allows and welcomes these contrasting readings. If I had to choose, though, I’d stick to the version with the washerwomen – I just can’t resist a story of female community. Not to mention the cannibalism, and the strip tease that happens before the wolf attacks the girl. But I’ll write about that some other time.

Further Reading

Bruno Bettleheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Penguin, 1976).

Robert Darnton, ‘Peasants Tell Tales’, in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: 1984), pp. 9-72.

Mary Douglas, ‘Red Riding Hood: An Interpretation from Anthropology’, Folklore 106, 1995, pp. 1-7.

Julie-Marie Strange, ‘Fairy Tales of Fertility’, in The Routledge History of Sex and the Body: 1500 to the Present, edited by Sarah Toulalan and Kate Fisher (New York: 2016), pp. 296-309.

Yvonne Verdier, Façons de Dire: Façons de Faire: La Laveuse,
la Couturière, la Cuisinière
(Paris, 1979).

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Why is it that we imagine an older woman when we think of a witch?

Close your eyes and imagine a witch. What do you see? In my case, perhaps unsurprisingly, I picture the Wicked Witch of the West as played by the wonderful Margaret Hamilton: stooped posture, hooked nose, hairy moles on a green face, slim body dressed in black robes, wispy hair covered by a hat, broom clutched menacingly in Dorothy’s direction. She’s a stereotypical witch, a hag who’s equally fascinating and repulsive. But why do we think of old women when we think of witches?

Witches are having a moment: ‘witch lit’ is one of the best-selling book genres of the past few years, and witches have been reappropriated by feminism, becoming a symbol of resistance and non-conformity. Yet the image of the old hag wishing to harm children still lurks in the back of our minds. Since The Wizard of Oz’s release in 1939, Margaret Hamilton’s version came to dominate how many of us imagine witches today. However, this depiction was not new, but rather a reinterpretation and codification of how witches had been described for centuries. There are exceptions, yes, but witches are usually old. They are crones; their bodies are shrivelled and stooped with age, their hair is greying, and their faces are gaunt and wrinkled. Why? Let’s go back to the period of the ‘witch craze’.

In the early modern period, the body was understood within the framework of the humoral theory: the proportion of the four humours (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) determined health and illness, and the bodily fluids shaped the body’s constitution while simultaneously being influenced by gender, age, season, and lifestyle. In general, though, growing old was a process of ‘drying out’, with bodily fluids becoming less abundant. Think of the body as changing from a plump grape to a shrivelled raisin. This is why older women stopped menstruating: they no longer had excessive blood to purge. Menopause was part of the gradual process of ageing for women, and it was usually believed to start around 49 years old. (This was consistent with the Hippocratic idea of the ‘seven ages of man’, in which the body underwent changes at the end of every seven years.) This was not a sudden transition, though. Women were warned in medical manuals that irregular menstruation was to be expected during this period (pun unintended but appreciated), which could last up to a decade. In the best-selling sex guide wrongly attributed to Aristotle, it was stated that:

‘If the Woman be stricken in years, and it cease to be with her after the Custom of Women [menstruation], that is her Courses are stayed [stopped], which in some happens sooner, and some later, and between 44 and 55 with them all […], those Women must despair of further Generation [further pregnancies]: for as the learned in this Art frequently observe, where there is neither Buds nor Blossoms there can be no fruit’.
Aristotle’s Masterpiece, 1684

It was widely understood that without the flowers (menstruation), there could be no fruit (a child), with menopause marking the end of women’s fertility. At a time when fertility was revered, it’s not hard to understand how old women came to be both feared and reviled. They were assumed to be jealous of younger women, wishing to harm them and their children. And this is what connects age and gender to witchcraft: envy. Think of the Wicked Witch of the West again, and her green body. Could she be green with envy? And what about Dorothy’s ruby slippers, their bloody colour a symbol of youth and life?

One way of understanding witchcraft is as physical harm caused by an emotion. It’s not surprising, then, that these elderly women, jealous of youth and vitality, would attack fertility. Witches were accused of destroying crops, causing cattle to sicken, and making men impotent or women barren. It wasn’t rare for allegations of witchcraft to happen during the lying-in period, when newly delivered women were celebrated by their friends and family. (You can read a little bit about these rituals here.) New mothers expected to be the target of envy and so, feared attacks by witches, who could dry their milk or make their babies ill. It is no coincidence that this narrative can be found both in books about witchcraft and demonology from the period and in the judicial archives. So, the idea of older women envying and harming younger women was established by the 16th century. These stereotypes of witchcraft were created by fears, but also by a patriarchal hostility towards older women, who could no longer contribute to their society by having children.

Many of the women accused of witchcraft embodied the image of envy as depicted in medieval churches and paintings, with the two becoming deeply intertwined. These crones usually had long, unbound grey hair, and shrivelled sagging breasts. Their bodies were dried up and lacking in vitality, the opposite of the young, fertile body, full of the vital fluids for reproduction: menstrual blood and breastmilk. Witches’ bodies were life-taking, not life-giving.

So, the signs of age became deeply associated with witches: the slumped posture, toothless mouth, caved-in face, hooked nose, post-menopausal facial hair, and ubiquitous empty breasts. But there’s more to it. Menopause rendered women less feminine, ‘unsexing’ them and making them closer to men – symbolised by the growth of facial hair. This made them less sexually attractive in a heteronormative society in which the sexual and gender binaries limited the kinds of bodies that were ‘acceptable’.

In the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, or the Hammer of Witches, Heinrich Kramer described witches as old and barren, but also sexually voracious women. Witchcraft was then also a manifestation of female lust – and frustrated desire since they were no longer considered sexually attractive. The hot flushes from menopause (‘flashings’) might have something to do with that idea since in this period sexual arousal was believed to be connected to bodily heat. (Hot spices and gamey meats were considered aphrodisiacs because they ‘heated’ the body, preparing it for sex.) So, these menopausal women were not only envious of younger women’s fertility but their sexual lives and pleasure. It is no wonder that many tales of witches included seduction; pacts with the devil were sealed through intercourse, and witches’ sabbaths involved orgies.

More recently, witches have been reclaimed. The book-turned-musical Wicked is perhaps the best example: the Wicked Witch of the West goes from the old, hag-like villain from Dorothy’s story to the (young) heroine of her own story. She is no longer just the Wicked Witch of the West, but Elphaba. Undoubtedly, we have a more nuanced understanding of gender and age today than in the 16th and 17th centuries. Yet many post-menopausal women claim to feel invisible in the eyes of society. Maybe they are no longer maligned, but they are secondary to younger women, who are themselves embracing the witch as a way of developing their own identities. However, we must keep in mind the misogyny and the ageism behind the witch as well as her symbolic role of female power. In the end, witches are paradoxical, they seduce and repulse us at once. For me, there’s no contest: Judy Garland is fabulous, sure, but my favourite parts of The Wizard of Oz are the ones with the Wicked Witch of the West.  


Aristotle’s Master-piece, or, The Secrets of Generation (London: 1684)

Heinrich Kramer, Malleus Maleficarum [Hammer of Witches] (Venice: 1487).

Johann Weyer, De praestigiis daemonum [On the Tricks of Demons] (Basel: 1563).

Further Reading:

Melanie Klein, Envy and Gratitude and Other Works: 1946-1963 (New York: The Free Press, 1975).

The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian Levack (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Lyndal Roper, The Witch in the Western Imagination (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012).

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