When I first saw Jane Yolen's essay "America's Cinderella," I wasn't initially interested, because I just recently did a post basically arguing with many of Jane Yolen's points on why Disney's Cinderella is a bad role model. But the essay expands the arguments and takes a look at older versions of Cinderella for comparison, which provides a bigger picture.
As I've mentioned before, if you look at a relatively recent version of a Princess tale, the story on its own usually isn't that offensive. A Cinderella that cries? That's natural and understandable. A Cinderella who is accused of doing nothing? You could say she's biding her time and waiting for the right opportunity (which is what we would probably assume about a male protagonist in the same situation), and for the record, her constant housework is actually really active. It's when we look at the history of a tale that we find patterns which are troubling.
The English tale "Cap O' Rushes" is a Cinderella tale type, which features an incredibly resourceful heroine. When her father kicks her out of the house, she makes herself a disguise, offers her services as a maid, and of her own initiative and efforts goes to the ball in her finery, earning the love of the master's son. Even in Perrault's tale, although the fairy godmother is the one who provides the nice clothes, Cinderella is the one to suggest using a rat for a footman, and goes off to find it herself. Folklore versions of Cinderella very rarely forgive their stepsisters, but allow their punishment to take place without comment. This point makes me a little leery, because forgiveness is obviously a valuable and good trait, but the way it happens in Perrault's tale and many subsequent versions is definitely unrealistic. It's naive on the part of Cinderella to assume that her stepsisters would "never, never" be unkind to her again, after years and years of abuse.
Chapbooks and other children's storybooks over the next decades continued in this trend. Cinderella was increasingly represented as crying and doing nothing else to help herself. Any creative thinking and action disappear entirely. Yolen even states that, although the chapbooks changed all the tales, Cinderella was the most dramatically different in her transition from folklore to print.
Also, correct me if I'm wrong, but although Yolen only cites American Cinderellas, I believe the tale followed this same pattern in Europe where the heroine becomes more helpless when published in children's books, during the same time period.