Some loosely organized thoughts on the association between cats and women in Western culture, and its larger implications. (Being a feminist with cats, you know I had to talk about this eventually.) I think I have a thesis somewhere here, but it’s still gelling, so consider this one of my less polished posts.
The association between women and cats is ancient. A predatory older woman is a “cougar.” An angry mother is a “lioness protecting her cubs.” A sexualized young woman is a “tiger in the sack.” Nasty women are “catty” and occasionally have “cat fights.” A pathetic old woman with no life partner and more than one cat is a “cat lady.” A smug woman is “the cat who ate the canary” or possibly “the cat who ate the cream.” A sexually aggressive woman is a “cat in heat.” Female dancers move with “cat-like grace.” Female sexual organs are “pussies” or “kitties” and a man who is believed to be weak is also a “pussy” (because to be referred to by a derogatory name for a woman’s genitals is the ultimate insult).
Cats were domesticated late, when compared to other animals, and the reasons for domestication remain unclear. As pets? As a method of pest control? Possibly as food? But there’s an implication there; both women and cats have come only recently to domestication, and must therefore be closely watched and controlled for fear that they will run away or act out.
During the witch hunts which swept Europe and North America at various periods in history, cats were persecuted as the familiars of witches, believed to be capable of going out into the world to do the evil bidding of their mistresses. When accusing people of witchcraft, people often pointed to their cats, or claimed to see visions of cats, with some creative accusations claiming that women actually had the capability to turn into cats to roam the night. Cats were burned alive and drowned alongside women believed to be witches. They were tormented and murdered on the very altars of churches.
Oddly enough, some historians believe that the explosion of the Black Death across Europe happened, in part, because of the decimation of the cat population. Without cats to keep them in check, rats multiplied, and those rats carried death and disease. Ironically, destroying animals believed to be evil brought about an evil and torment far greater than any witch could have imagined.
During this period, men were also associated with cats and were accused of witchcraft. Today, of course, cats are firmly associated with femininity. Men who like cats are emasculated. Men are also informed that women will always love cats more than men; that a cat can, in fact, be viewed as a rival or a threat in a romantic relationship. Suggestive language implies that women keep cats for some sort of sexualized emotional benefit, that a woman with cats doesn’t need a sexual partner, that women get cats to compensate for loneliness, even that women keep cats instead of having children. Countless relationship guides include some variation of “why women like cats more than you,” “how to get women to like you as much as they like cats,” “loving women who love cats,” and “how to understand women through their cats.”
Cats and female sexuality are especially closely associated; women may even be described as “feline” or “catlike” when they are objectified and sexualized. Costuming as cats is not uncommon among women donning sexualized costumes at Halloween or for performance. Cats were even briefly used in European art when courtesans were portrayed, a signal to someone viewing a painting that the woman portrayed was a courtesan, was sexually available, was not a respected and honored wife or matron. Negative traits associated with women are also ascribed to cats: detached, aloof, cool, disloyal, unpredictable, whiny, greedy, selfish.
Several popular mystery series written by female authors prominently feature cats, and the authors of these series are often photographed with their cats. Yet, male authors rarely write cat-centric literature, and are even more rarely photographed with their cats. Cats, the reasoning goes, are a woman’s area of expertise and interest; they belong in chick lit and romances, not in respectable (male, white) literature.
The “battle of the sexes” is often waged with cats and dogs as proxies. Cats, of course, are linked with women, while dogs are linked with men. Women like cats because they’re independent and clean. Men like dogs because they’re needy. And that’s just the tip of the stereotype iceberg.
What’s especially interesting about using cats and dogs as proxies is that cats are fundamentally helpless in some ways and women are often disempowered by the society they live in. The domestic cat is viewed as an independent creature which can take care of itself, but it is also isolated in that independence. There’s a reason people torment cats, not dogs: cats are smaller and weaker, just as women are smaller and weaker, statistically speaking. There’s a reason many people devalue both cats and women (and especially women who have cats). Cats, by living alone, do not benefit from the protection of the pack, fearing predators and enemies which include humans and other cats. Likewise, women often find themselves isolated even from other women, and are attacked by other women who are clawing (another cat reference) their way to a better position. Dogs, on the other hand, at least in the case of large dogs, can defend themselves, can even kill if they have to, and even small dogs can defend themselves in a pack.
A cat who fights back when it is tormented and abused is said to have a bad attitude, and may be punished for it. Likewise, women who fight back, physically or verbally, are often punished for it, even when the behavior is deliberately provoked. Both cats and women are taught that it is dangerous to resist, to defend yourself, because the punishment may be death by violence.
In some senses, a culture of fear and mystery surrounds cats, just as it surrounds women. Centuries of association are apparently difficult to erase in the popular mind, and it seems unlikely that women and cats will ever be decoupled. Both are associated with a number of negatives which are used to justify cruelty and abuse which can sometimes be extreme; such cruelty is sometimes even described as deserved or appropriate because cats and women both behave so irrationally that a rough hand is needed to keep them in line.
Women are, of course, compared to other animals. (A fat woman is a “cow” or a “pig,” an ugly woman is a “dog,” a deceptive woman is a “snake,” an assertive and aggressive woman is a “bitch.”) But I think that the connection between women and cats runs especially deep, and it’s interesting to explore the reasons behind that. It’s also interesting to look at the real world similarities between women and cats: both, for example, are viewed as legitimate targets for physical abuse. Torment of women and cats is considered an appropriate subject for jokes, and in some cases, a “manly” thing to do. Both are also made dependent on the very people who abuse them: the domestic cat, by nature of being helpless (and sometimes made more so with brutalities like declawing), and the abused woman, by nature of a range of things, ranging from the inability to escape for economic reasons to a culture of fear which traps her in an abusive relationship.
Felinity and femininity are indeed deeply intertwined in the Western consciousness.