Why Are Women Who Have Cats Such Figures of Mockery?

No seriously, what’s the deal with making fun of women who have cats in their lives? It seems like as soon as a woman has two or more, she suddenly morphs from being an ordinary person into a ‘crazy cat lady’ (about which more in a moment), in a way that doesn’t happen to, say, people who keep dogs, or horses, or other sorts of animals. It’s just cats, and it’s women in particular, and this illustrates a fascinating intersection of some social attitudes which date back centuries about both cats and women.

Cats in general tend to get a bad rep in society, particularly pet cats. Most people who live in urban areas are familiar with cats either as feral strays or pets, and are not aware that cats can also be working animals. Whether rural or urban, many people have been exposed to mythologies about cats as harbingers of evil (black cats bear the brunt of this). Some people still believe that cats are dangerous for babies, and cats are often discarded like trash when a family brings a new baby into the home by parents who apparently think of animals as objects.

For thousands of years, the cat has occupied a really mixed role in society. Egyptians may have worshipped them, but at various points in history they’ve been massacred in huge numbers, accused of being witches’ familiars, and blamed for the spread of disease. The linkage between women and cats has deep ties with accusations of witchcraft but also of other sinister doings, and a genuine belief that cats are suspicious, stealthy, and sneaky, and thus that women who live with them or give them shelter shouldn’t be trusted.

Unlike many dog breeds, cats weren’t domesticated and bred to be extremely loyal, dependent on humans, trainable, and attached to human handlers. Cats weren’t bred for protection, or livestock herding/guardianship, or any number of tasks where the biddability of dogs is desired — while breeds pushed in the direction of being pets have been even further bred for docileness and relatively poor problemsolving skills and intelligent refusal traits (a livestock guardian dog, for example, will not obey an order she doesn’t think is in the best interest of the herd, while a well-trained pet isn’t capable of distinguishing between a dangerous order and a sensible one). Cats were domesticated and bred to manage vermin, and as such, to lead much more independent lives — their adoption as pets, as with dogs, was probably a bit secondary.

I can’t help but draw a parallel here: people view a more independent species as less valuable, less trustworthy, and many of those same people are also the ones who dislike independent women who assert their own autonomy in the world. Obviously, women are not equivalent to cats, but it’s notable that in both cases, women and cats are disliked for exercising free will, and are often severely punished for it. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the combination of women and cats is considered so threatening, and that the way people choose to deal with it is by mocking women.

Because, really, what about keeping multiple cats makes someone so funny? Let alone ‘crazy,’ as in the crazy cat lady stereotype, which bears closer examination. Hoarders, who experience symptoms of mental illness that sometimes cause them to accumulate objects, animals, or both, sometimes have large numbers of cats, in the dozens or even hundreds. Hoarding is a serious mental illness with considerable complex ramifications, and it should be treated seriously: it requires extensive intervention and treatment, with lengthy therapy and other tools to help people manage their hoarding tendencies and address their past.

Someone who keeps two cats, or three, or even seven, is not necessarily experiencing hoarding. Hoarding isn’t so much about the number of things you have (if it was, I could be accused of being a book hoarder) but about meeting a specific set of diagnostic criteria. To be diagnosed with this condition, you must experience “significant distress or functional impairment as a result of [your] hoarding behavior.’ Having cats, strangely enough, isn’t one of those diagnostic criteria, despite lay beliefs about hoarding and how it works.

Why is it, then, that women who have lots of cats (or not so many!) are dismissed with the ‘crazy’ label, written off as unimportant? Why are women stigmatised for keeping cats in their lives treated in a way that men with lots of cats are not? A woman snuggling in bed with her cats at night is a figure of disgust and mockery, while a man who does the same is liable to be described as adorable and dedicated to his animal friends.

There seems to be a strange attitude that many single women who have cats use them as surrogate children, friends, or lovers, as though women are incapable of distinguishing between their fellow human beings and nonhuman animals. Yes, some people with cats (like me) dedicate a lot of love and attention to them, but we’re under no illusions that our cats are children. They’re cats. And while we love having them in our lives, and pay high vet bills when they’re sick, and would fight to the death to defend them from someone trying to hurt them, they’re not friends in the human sense. As for that last one…bestiality is an entirely separate issue, and it’s not a practice I or many other cat owners endorse, as, strangely enough, we disapprove of animal abuse.

What’s so terrible about ladies having cats? What’s so terrible about people in general enriching their lives with animals? Having furry companions can help with mental health conditions, foot warming in the coldest parts of the year, and tough days. There’s nothing wrong with that — and it’s curious that the mockery of women who own cats is used to attempt to cut them off from their feline relationships. Or is it? In a society that hates women, it’s not surprising to see people taking potshots at every detail of women’s lives.