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How the ‘Crazy’ Cat Lady Became One of Pop Culture’s Most Enduring Sexist Tropes

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Little Edie listens to records with one of the many cats of 'Grey Gardens' (1976).
Little Edie listens to records with one of the many cats of 'Grey Gardens' (1976). (Janus Films)

Old maid. Spinster. Thornback. There are plenty of words with derogatory overtones to describe single women, but the trope of the cat lady is one that has persisted in culture almost as long as culture’s been recorded. Today, most commonly, it represents a sad and lonely woman who uses felines as a substitute for both lovers and children. The fact that—among millennials at least—more men own cats than women (48% of men vs. 35% of women) tends to fly under the radar.

It’s not hard to find cat ladies in popular culture. In 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, an eccentric, cat-loving single woman gets beaten to death with a phallic statue. (Subtle.) In a 2004 SNL skit, Robert De Niro plays a cat lady who’s barely holding it together. In The Office, Angela is obsessed with cats, watching her pets via nanny-cams at work, keeping them in filing cabinets, and bemoaning the lack of “cat maternity” leave at Dunder Mifflin. The Simpsons has had a deranged cat lady in its cast of characters for years.

The idea that cat companionship is a sign of poor mental health is patently false, despite what Grey Gardens might have implied in 1976. The Mental Health Foundation says that pets are highly effective at relieving stress and anxiety. Other research has shown that cats are good for humans in a multitude of ways; cat owners have significantly lower risks of both stroke and heart attack. And while it’s true that pop culture has worked overtime to keep false stereotypes alive, the cat lady also has her roots in hundreds of years of history.

In ancient times, cats and feminine deities went hand in hand. Egypt’s half-cat, half-woman Bastet was the goddess of domesticity, childbirth and “women’s secrets.” Chinese cat goddess Li Shou was a symbol of fertility. And in Norse mythology, Freya, the goddess of beauty and strength, rode a chariot led by cats.

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Everything was going pretty swimmingly for cat ladies then, until the Roman Catholic Church showed up in the Middle Ages. In an effort to rid the world of non-Christian gods, deities other than the Holy Trinity were stigmatized and rebranded as evil. Worse, cats garnered a reputation for being minions of Satan.

In 1232, Pope Gregory—a man fond of torturing people for information—wrote a letter to Germany’s King Henry VII in which he described a Satanic ritual that involved worshippers kissing the rear end of a magical cat:

[A statue of] a black cat about the size of an average dog, descends backwards, with its tail erect. First the novice, then the master, then each one of the order who are worthy and perfect, kiss the cat on its hindquarters… They incline their heads towards the cat. ‘Forgive us,’ says the master, and the one next to him repeats this.

Then in 1486, the now-infamous Malleus Maleficarum (aka “the Witch Hammer”) book arrived. The German who wrote it, Heinrich Kramer, was inspired to do so after being ordered to leave his diocese by the church. His views on witches, and how to eradicate them, were so extreme, even other Catholics of the time couldn’t support them. That didn’t stop his book from being embraced by zealots everywhere.

By the time England executed its first witch in 1566 (a 63-year-old by the name of Agnes Waterhouse), the fact that she reportedly had a murderous, blood-drinking cat named Satan seemed totally plausible for many who heard about her case. A century later, demonic, power-hungry cats remained a major theme of the Salem witch trials.

In the early 18th century, as the witch trials were widely recognized as a grave miscarriage of justice, single women with cats were suddenly transformed in the public eye from frightening fiends to figures to be pitied. Unfortunately, because single women of the time were so often viewed as a nuisance—without access to jobs, unmarried women had to rely on the kindness of relatives for financial support—the cat lady became a figure of ridicule. And as resentments towards these women grew, so did the popularity of the stereotype.

This 1789 painting, Old Maids at a Cat’s Funeral, stands as a perfect example of the rhetoric of the time. If you don’t have a husband or children, it tells us, you will lose all sense of propriety.

This colored stipple engraving depicts a funeral procession of elderly women with cats in their arms, following the coffin of a dead cat. The art, by J. Pettit after E.G. Byron, is dated 10 April 1789.
This colored stipple engraving depicts a funeral procession of elderly women with cats in their arms, following the coffin of a dead cat. The art, by J. Pettit after E.G. Byron, is dated 10 April 1789. (Wellcomecollection.org)

The stereotype, of course, stuck around. And by the Victorian era, the close relationship between single women and cats was accepted as an inevitable social norm. In 1880, the Dundee Courier reported:

There is nothing at all surprising in the old maid choosing a cat as a household pet or companion. Solitude is not congenial to human nature, and a poor forlorn female, shut up in a cheerless ‘garret,’ brooding all alone over her blighted hopes, would naturally centre her affections on some of the lower animals.

Viewing “old maids” as harmless didn’t last long, however. In the early 20th century, as women inched ever closer to gaining the right to vote, cats became a standard feature of anti-suffrage propaganda. This served two purposes. First, depicting suffragettes as cats acted as a means to reduce women to the status of inconsequential, trifling animals. Second, associating women’s rights activists with this particular pet acted as a wink and a nod to the public about what kind of woman wanted the vote: lonely, bitter man-haters.

Art depicts a disheveled cat flexing its claws and holding a sign that reads 'VOTE FOR SHES'.
Art by: William Henry Ellam. Publisher: Illustrated Postcard Co., New York and Germany. (John Hopkins University library)
This 1908 postcard features art depicting an angry kitten with text that reads 'I want my vote!' and a background depicting the flag of the British suffrage movement.
Year: 1908. Courtesy of John Hopkins University library.
A cat wearing a hat, suffrage flag and 'Votes For Women' pin.
Courtesy of Palczewski, Catherine H. Postcard Archive. University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls.

It was in the mid-20th century that concerted efforts to subvert and reclaim the cat lady began in earnest. In the 1960s, Carolee Schneemann flipped the stereotype on its head with performance art that juxtaposed footage of her cat with her own raw sexuality. This culminated in 1967’s Fuses—an 18-minute film in which Schneemann has sex with her boyfriend while her cat watches on.

Today, art and merchandise designed to joyfully rebrand the cat lady is a mere Google search away. Etsy is awash with the stuff, and companies like Mad Old Cat Lady proudly embrace and subvert imagery associated with “cat lovers, weirdos and witches.” What’s more, since 2015, CatCon has encouraged 78,000 conference attendees to embrace their inner cat lady.

Unfortunately, no amount of online feminist discourse has yet managed to successfully rid pop culture of the sexist stereotype. 2009 documentary Cat Ladies advertised itself as “a sensitive and emotionally honest portrait of women.” Instead, it focused all of its energy on proving that the very saddest portrayals of cat ladies were real and fairly common. The documentary subjects were forlorn, lonely, and, in some cases, doing more harm to their cats than good via obsessive and smothering behavior. (No clingy male cat owners were featured, of course.)

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Clearly, the thing that connects every period of cat lady has little to do with the animals themselves. Rather, it’s about a deep-rooted fear of feminine power and female autonomy. Fear of goddesses, fear of witches, fear of single women. All dressed up and expertly masked with mockery, disdain and pity, in order to disincentivize other women from embracing their own power. As such, if you find yourself branded a cat lady this Valentine’s Day? You might just want to wear that as a badge of honor.

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