It’s the stuff of jokes. Pick a sitcom, any sitcom, and you’ll usually find an episode with some snarky comments about women who live alone with their cats.
Even Gilmore Girls once had an opening scene in which Lorelai — who has just broken up with her boyfriend — finds a gathering of strange cats on her front porch. She hurriedly phones her daughter, insisting that her furry visitors know she’s single again.
Basically, the “crazy cat lady” is a stereotype and an especially ridiculous one. Here’s why:
1. It reeks of male chauvinism.
It implies that a woman can’t get a man and is using feline companionship as a substitute. But there’s a bit more to it. Men who don’t like cats because “they’re too damned independent” are — news flash! — the same ones who don’t like independent women. The “crazy cat lady” label is their way of making fun of what they secretly fear.
2. It harks back to the days when cats were viewed as witches’ familiars.
“From the first days of her triumph, the Christian Church wished to ignore the cat, in reaction to the pagan religions that had adored it,” observes Fernand Mery in his classic The Life, History and Magic of the Cat. Actually, dogs, goats, rats, pigs and just about any other small animal were also contenders for the title. But the old women who made up the bulk of the accused generally kept cats as company and mousers.
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3. The term “crazy cat lady” also implies a hoarder.
“It’s B.S.,” says my friend Linda, who has rescued many cats over the years. Some of them she has placed and some of them she has kept. “There are cat hoarders. But there are those of us who sacrifice pedicures, manicures and high-fashion clothing for the sake of these creatures who are homeless and voiceless. And we run our own private animal shelters. If you do it the right way — the proper way — you have to forgo certain luxuries.”
4. Many of the women who own more than 1 cat are involved in legitimate animal-rescue work.
This means that they frequently have foster cats and kittens at their homes. Women have been involved in animal welfare work in this country since at least 1869, when Caroline Earle White founded The Women’s Humane Society in Bensalem, Penn.
5. Your so-called “cat lady” may also be a breeder.
Not a backyard breeder, but one registered with The Cat Fanciers’ Association Inc. (CFA) or The International Cat Association (TICA). Many of these breeders also do rescue work, breed-specific or otherwise.
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6. We can thank the documentary Grey Gardens (1975) for helping to perpetuate the stereotype.
The “cat ladies” in question were relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — and, yes, they were living in squalor with cats scurrying about here, there and everywhere. There were raccoons running amok, too, but nobody ever remembers them. Most of the multi-cat caretakers I know invest heavily in paper towels and cleaning products.
7. Cat lovers are not exclusively female.
Famous cat-loving men include Albert Schweitzer, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and artist Edward Gorey. My husband, Tim, used to help me on cat rescue missions. Author Ellen Perry Berkeley’s husband, Roy, actually got “injections to counteract his allergies to cats” so that they could officially adopt Turtle, the feral tortoiseshell they’d been feeding.
8. The cat lady is, as Linda says, “an urban legend that doesn’t really mean anything.”
The writers on the World’s Best Cat Litter website agree, maintaining that “today’s cat lover is actually a remarkably diversified breed. They are older couples, young singles, college students, tough guys, business executives and entrepreneurs, adventurers, working moms, grandfathers, celebrities and everything in between.”
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9. Last, but not certainly not least, sometimes the cat lady is a writer/artist/photographer.
“As a painter, cats are my muse,” says artist Laura Dumm, who has done her share of rescuing with husband Gary (also an artist). “They are a constant source of subject matter and inspiration. They are complex little creatures, and each one is different, not only in color and shape but also in personality. They have taught me to live in the moment and not worry about the little stuff.”