“Women and cats will do as they damn well please,” observes writer Alan Holbrook. “Men and dogs had better get used to it.”
Cats and women have pretty much been linked together since the beginning of time.
- Early goddesses often had feline attributes (Bast and Sekhmet in Egypt) or were somehow associated with cats (Artemis and Hecate in Greece).
- In Aesop’s Fables, the goddess Venus turns a cat into a woman so that she can be with the young man she has fallen in love with.
How did the female-feline connection come about in the first place? The answer lies with Bast, one of the oldest goddesses. As Fabio Amodeo, author of Cats: Art, Legend, History, puts it, Bast was “not just a goddess, but the goddess of love, fertility and childbirth.”
Bast was also considered “a great enchantress,” he says. “To the Egyptians, nothing on earth could symbolize the ability to seduce better than the cat.”
Think about the 2 most famous film versions of Cleopatra: Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor. How much more feline and seductive could you get? Leigh’s Cleopatra, according to one writer, “look[ed] ravishingly like a kitten, justifying Caesar’s calling her that.” The fact that both actresses were gorgeous and that both of them loved cats — one of Taylor’s last pets was a Somali — simply enhanced that sense of connection.
That’s right — not cat ladies, but women who can magically turn into cats. A number of legends involve ailuranthropy (the ability to turn into a cat), and 9 times out of 10, the shape-shifter is a woman.
In French folklore, she is known as the chetta or chat-garou. In Asia, she is Bakeneko, the Ghost or Monster Cat. The Bakeneko appears as a beautiful woman who just happens to cast the shadow of a cat. Sometimes she appears in the stories as a prostitute; she is found out only when her customer awakens the next morning and discovers her chowing down on live fish and shrimp.
There is also a primitive Bengali tribe that believes that women’s souls can morph into black cats. According to the book Your Magickal Cat, “If such a cat becomes physically wounded, the identical wound will appear on the body of the woman. And if the cat should be killed, the woman will experience a similar death at the exact moment that the cat dies.”
Fast-forward out of the shadows of folklore and into the world we can see and touch. The connection between women and their cats persists.
Coincidentally or not, a lot of cat books seem to be written by women. Gladys Taber wrote 2 books about her Abyssinian, Amber. Doreen Tovey chronicled the lives of a whole slew of Siamese, starting with Cats in the Belfry in 1957 and ending with Cats in Concord in 2001.
It’s not that men don’t write cat books (Cleveland Amory, Paul Gallico and Peter Gethers quickly come to mind). Maybe it’s just that women writers are more willing to own up and pledge their feline allegiance.
I was a member of the Cat Writers’ Association for many years, and most of the members were cat ladies and proud of it. “Oh, you’re still in the single digits!” one of them said with a laugh when I told them how many cats I had.
Famous Cat Ladies
The British actress with the exquisite cameo face is best remembered for her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. She shared her life with a number of cats and loved Siamese in particular. She even went so far as to say, “Once you have kept a Siamese cat you can never have any other.”
The author of Anne of Green Gables was passionate about cats. She kept her feelings for felines relatively low-key in the Anne books but gave them full play in the Emily of New Moon series and other novels. Jane of Lantern Hill is dedicated to her cat, Lucky, and there is a musical based on her life called The 9 Lives of L.M. Montgomery.
“The French Chef” — that tall, ebullient woman who could make cooking tripe look fun — adored cats. Her hectic travel schedule didn’t always allow her to have one as a pet, but she attended cat shows regularly and befriended cats wherever she went, often rehoming strays. And when she died at her California retirement home in 2004 at age 92, a kitten named Minou was sleeping on her pillow and keeping her company.