A Brief History of the Cat Lady

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From the tenth to the eighteenth centuries, countless thousands of cats across Europe were tortured and burned to death alongside the women whose “familiars” in witchcraft those cats were presumed to be.  Sometimes the cats themselves were believed to be witches.  The women were usually single and often elderly.  Medieval and Early Modern society’s mistrust of single women, cats, and any bond between the two lingers in today’s conception of the “cat lady.”  Like her persecuted “witch” predecessors, the cat lady is our culture’s envisioning of the woman who has failed to remain within the social order, who lies precariously outside it. 

Why have so many people viewed companionship with cats in particular, as opposed to any other animal, as so suspect?  It seems that the same aura of mystery around the cat that caused the Egyptians to deify them caused Western Christianity to suspect them of evil for hundreds of years.  Cats have a peculiar interiority, self-containment, and inscrutability, which makes them less easy to anthropomorphize than dogs.  Even today, some consider cats to be sinister, seeing in their aloof demeanors selfishness, and in their mercurial temperaments cruelty.  I think this is due— and has been, in every century— to the fact that cats seem independent of humans, and that no matter how often we keep them as pets their value does not lie in what they can “do” for humans.  They are beautiful, not “useful,” because while we’ve bred dogs for various kinds of work, cats have only ever been bred for beauty.  (People have used them to kill mice, but make no mistake: cats only do this because they want to.)  You never really own a cat.  Their love isn’t unconditional; it must be earned, and it must be on their own terms. 

It may sound strange, but I think single women are threatening to men for similar reasons.  They are independent.  They aren’t fulfilling the traditional roles of wife and mother, and thus aren’t proving “useful” to men.  Their very presence suggests that a woman may not necessarily need a man.  If there’s anything the male ego, and the human ego in general, dislikes it’s to feel unnecessary to a member of a gender or species it deems dependent.  Female self-possession, like feline self-possession, was once persecuted; it is now ridiculed.

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As the western world became more secular, the single woman with a cat moved from being a potential witch to being a tragi-comic cultural archetype, a pathetic and even grotesque cautionary figure.  In today’s cultural imagination, the cat lady is smelly and unhinged; her pathetically lonely existence has led her to sublimate her thwarted romantic and maternal instincts, and to invest her relationship with her cats with an emotional weight that only human connection is meant to bear.  I’m not sure how far this stereotype dates back, but in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862) the narrator gently mocks a minor character this way: “The poor good old woman was a spinster.  Sultan, her cat… had filled her heart and provided all the passion she needed.  None of her dreams went so far as a man.  She had never got beyond her cat” (684). 

The cat lady has become a threat to be held over the heads of women who put off or abstain from marriage.  Many single women are aware of the socially conditioned fear: “What if I end up a crazy cat lady?”  To be a cat lady may not put your life at risk like being declared a witch once did, but it is a signifier of social failure all the same.  The cat lady—like, to a lesser extent, the supposedly vacuous woman who carries her small dog everywhere—is a common target for mockery.  Society’s centuries-old fear of the single woman’s (and her pet’s) potential anti-social (or even supernatural) power has now masked itself as derision, and woven itself in with all the other ways women’s emotions are policed or mocked as excessive or misplaced.   

I remember a conversation with some fellow graduate students about how many cats someone needs to have in order to be a cat lady—whether it was a matter of numbers, or if sufficient obsession with one cat was enough to qualify for the role.  For me at least, there’s a real defensiveness underlying such humorous discussions. In any conversation in which I mention my own cat, I am quick to mix humor at my own expense in with any expressions of my deep love for her.  It’s like I have to make sure the other person knows I’m in on the joke—or that I got to the joke about myself before anyone else could.  What I don’t say in these conversations, but what is very much the truth, is that there have been times in the past few years when I have been sinking into depression, or spiraling into anxiety, when that ten-pound feline presence has given me more comfort than anything else could.  I also don’t say that I would be more neurotic without a cat than with one, but that’s the truth too.  There is nothing trivial about the emotional support that can come from that kind of bond, as other cat owners can attest.

Moreover, there is good news for the cat ladies of the world.  Single women who own cats, like all other cat lovers, have perhaps benefited from the sheer cat-friendliness of the internet age. In the past, cat ownership took place in the private realm of the home, reinforcing the stereotype of the isolated cat owner, in contrast to the sociability implied in owning a dog (the latter involving walking the dog and potentially socializing with other human beings).  But now the internet has brought that most private of creatures, the cat, into the public sphere, and its human companion with it.  Cats are infinitely watchable, and their limitless visual appeal means they are perfectly positioned as objects of the internet gaze.  People watch videos of kittens on Youtube, Instagram their cats, and tweet viral memes of grumpy cats.  Amidst this feline frenzy, single women from pop stars to your cousin share pictures of their cats online, exuberantly displaying their love for their feline companions, and realizing they are far from alone in their attachment.  Perhaps, for the first time in history, it’s becoming a good time to be a cat lady.

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