Ideas

Ideas | Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

The crazy history of the ‘cat lady’

Mai Ly Degnan for The Boston Globe

Susan Michals was tired of being called a “cat lady” — as if it were a bad thing.

“The second I told people I had a cat, they were like, ‘Oh, you’re a cat lady, a crazy cat lady,’ ” Michals said. “It’s not something to hide. I’m a cat person and proud to be a cat person.”

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So in June 2015, Michals, an arts journalist and former television producer who shares her home with a cat and a dog, organized the world’s first CatCon. Held in Los Angeles and modeled on ComicCon, the “pop culture-centric cat convention” drew 12,000 people — many of them in costume — to a two-day celebration of all things cat. Vendors and exhibitors were curated to best convey the message that cats are cool, that cat people are fun, stylish, and Instagrammable. It was an effort to reclaim the term “crazy cat lady” — to drop the “crazy” and embrace the “cat.”

“They’re two fully loaded words when you put them together, there’s no question about that,” said Diane Lovejoy, author of “The Cat Lady Chronicles” and “Cat Lady Chic” and one of the speakers at the first CatCon. According to Lovejoy — and the Internet seems to agree — the cat lady is “the un-woman’s ambassador: unfashionable, undateable, unmarried, and becoming unhinged.” This certainly doesn’t describe either Lovejoy or Michals, or the host of other women who also love cats. “Women who love cats are like any other women — they’re vibrant, they’re accomplished, they’re competent. They just happen to focus a lot of their attention and energy on cats,” she said. “I proudly wear the badge.”

But for a very long time, that attention and energy have been read by society as crazy.

For as common as they are in the culture, there’s a surprising dearth of scholarly work on cat ladies. History isn’t just written by the winners of wars; it’s written by the winners of culture as well. And those who find themselves on the margins — the oddballs — are often written out.

Some amateur historians have scratched the surface to link the trope to the historical depiction of witches and their feline familiars. There is some logical truth to that. The early and middle Christian church demonized cats. One of Satan’s favorite forms to take was a black cat — a 12th-century writer helpfully colored in the details, explaining that when devil worshipers came across Satan-as-cat, “they kiss him under the tail.”

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Why cats were so hated is the stuff of many dissertations; scholars argue that although cats had been part of households as pest control since humans settled into agricultural life, they remained aloof from dog-like domestication. This upset the Christian hierarchical ordering of life on earth, with man at the top. Cats were figures of anxiety, straddling the domestic and the wild. The effect was twofold — cats were frequently maimed and killed for sport, and people who were overly fond of cats became suspect.

In the post-medieval period, cats became more explicitly linked to witches. Agnes Waterhouse, the first woman in England executed for witchcraft, in 1566, confessed to owning a cat as a familiar. According to a contemporary pamphlet, Waterhouse called the cat “Satan” and asked it to kill her husband, in return for feeding it her own blood.

It may have started with witches, but by the late 1700s the modern version of the cat-lady stereotype began to emerge. At the time, as many as a fifth of women didn’t marry. This presented a crisis for households in Georgian England — the Protestant Reformation of the 1540s dissolved convents, so patriarchs couldn’t pack their unmarried daughters off to the nunnery. Working for a living was frowned on. So unmarried women often became dependents in their relatives’ households. In her book, “Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England,” Amanda Vickery recounts the trials of one such spinster, Gertrude Savile, who lived on her baronet brother’s charity and died in 1758. In her journal, the embittered Savile wrote, “Entirely confine myself to my room. . . . That, and my Cat all my pleasure.”

She wasn’t even 30 years old.

The Gertrude Saviles of the Georgian world were a recognized archetype, regularly parodied in cartoons. “Old Maids at a Cat’s Funeral,” an etching published in 1789, depicted two women bearing a tiny coffin with a cat’s face on it, at the head of a parade of women, each with a cat under her arm. The only woman without a cat holds a handkerchief to her weeping eyes.

1795 cat lady sketches

“Old Maids at a Cat’s funeral,” engraved by John Pettit in 1789.

In 1795, “The Old Maids’ Occasional Concert” featured a pack of yowling cats, sheet music in front of them, cheered on by grotesque “old maids” of all shapes. And in 1792’s “Six Old Women Discussing Their Cats,” six old women, well, discuss their cats. Georgian cartoonists denigrated the unmarried woman by showing how her “unnatural” love for her cat usurped the “natural” bonds of marriage, children, and family.

The spinster-cat link gained cultural potency throughout the 19th century. Miss Havisham may not have owned cats, but the degraded, deranged figure who tortures Pip in “Great Expectations” was likely inspired by a real-life woman who did — a London spinster who became a shut-in and wore only white after her rejected suitor shot himself in the head in front of her. According to contemporary reports, she owned a bulldog and two cats, and nursed them like her own children. By the dawn of the 20th century, the old maid with the cat was a reliable stock figure in Western culture, popping up in short stories, major newspapers, popular music, and novels. Advertisements and cartoons from the same period commonly denigrated suffragettes by depicting them with cats — or as cats.

But the ladies trudged on, increasingly harried, still unmarried, and weighed down by their feline companions. In “Grey Gardens,” the 1975 documentary about two relatives of Jackie Kennedy, Big Edie and Little Edie, who lived in squalor in a mansion in East Hampton, N.Y., the cat lady took a new dimension as the pet hoarder. The “old maid with the cat” became conflated with people suffering from a pathological need to collect animals. That wasn’t entirely fair. But neither was it entirely wrong: Research conducted by Tufts University’s Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium between 1996 and 2006 found evidence that some hoarders fit the “crazy cat lady” stereotype: “a single, older woman, living alone and socioeconomically disadvantaged.”

The crazy cat lady stereotype reached a visibility high point in the 1990s, with the character Eleanor Abernathy, MD, JD, from “The Simpsons,” who throws cats and raves incoherently. By the end of the millennium, the crazy cat lady even had her own action figure — a wide-eyed, disheveled blonde woman in a bathrobe who came with a “starter kit” of six cats. In the early 2000s, “Saturday Night Live” dressed Robert DeNiro in drag for “Christmas with the Cat Lady.” (“Once upon a time there was a woman named Margie and she had dreams. Then one day she was kicked by a horse. Now she has cats.”)

A clear distinction was growing between the mere cat lady and the crazy cat lady. As the 2009 documentary “Cat Ladies” made clear with Jenny, a unmarried woman who lived with 16 cats, a cat lady could avoid the “crazy” moniker if she found a mate, or so Jenny thought. Cat ownership by an unmarried woman had come to signify a kind of mutual capitulation of that woman to a society that wouldn’t or couldn’t marry her. For example, on “30 Rock,” when Liz Lemon decides she’s done with men, she adopts a cat and names her Emily Dickinson as part of her “graceful transition into spinsterhood.”

The persistent link between owning cats and staying unmarried is also cross-cultural. In a 2012 message board post entitled “25 Signs You Might Be an Old Maid” on Lipstick Alley, an online community geared toward African-Americans, the first item was: “1. You own cats.” A 2014 paper on the enduring anxiety around the “old maid” in Israeli culture noted, “The unmarried woman is regularly stereotyped as lonely, miserable, and with no alternative but to fill her empty life with cats.” The global subtext — you can have cats or you can have a husband, but you can’t have both.

Meredith is allergic to joy.

A post shared by Taylor Swift (@taylorswift) on

But this was all before Taylor Swift came out as a cat lady in a Diet Coke commercial in 2014. And CatCon. And #CatLadyProblems on Twitter and Instagram. And cats turning up everywhere from H&M sweat shirts to Dolce & Gabbana dresses.

Even what’s funny about the cat lady is evolving. In the recent “Whiskers R Us” sketches on “Saturday Night Live,” cat ladies are weird, yes, but not pitiful. The humor hinges instead on the richly imagined lives of the cats themselves. (“This is Toby. Toby is a textbook narcissist.”) As the write-up about the Crazy Cat Lady Action Figure on the Archie McPhee website now notes, “It used to be an insult, but now people announce with pride that they are crazy cat ladies.” What’s changed?

Three important changes in the past 30 years are causing a dramatic rethink of the stereotype. First, the role of marriage in society is evolving. Americans are marrying later and, often, not at all; according to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of never-married American adults reached an all-time high in 2014, at one in five.

Second, the role of pets in the home has changed, presenting a hugely profitable market for companies that cater to “pet parents” and people who call their animals their “fur babies.” How we treat our companion animals has evolved into a closer, more intimate relationship, demanding a rethink of those roles; the cat lady’s outsize affection for her cats is no longer unusual, much less socially unacceptable.

Third, the Internet happened. Dog owners are perceived as more outgoing, probably because a dog requires even an introverted owner to leave the house. A cat makes no such demands. The Internet made crazy cat ladies visible in a virtual space where they could demonstrate not just their love for their pets, but also their diversity and their congeniality.

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Both CatCon’s Michals and author Lovejoy see the figure of the cat lady changing — she’s chic, she’s young, she’s got a good job, she’s not always a lady, and it doesn’t matter if she’s not married. Certainly, the success of CatCon is some evidence that being a cat lady is no longer so taboo — Michals is expecting more than 20,000 cat lovers at the Pasadena Convention Center in August.

Simply owning a cat is probably no longer enough for a woman to declare spinsterhood. But centuries-old stereotypes don’t vanish overnight. Word is, for all her cat lady love on social media, even Taylor Swift says she is afraid that she’ll be 30 years old, unmarried, no friends, and surrounded by cats.

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie is an American freelance writer living in London.
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