Colorful image of 3 women, also known as cat ladies, surrounded by a number of cats, all of which are extremely happy.
Illustration by Morgen Dutil, Montserrat College of Art

‘Cat Ladies’ Are Unfairly Maligned, but Their Reputation Is Changing

Deemed by society as forsaken spinsters using felines to fill the void, these ‘unstable’ women are reclaiming the narrative and quite literally saving lives.

 

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Colorful image of 3 women, also known as cat ladies, surrounded by a number of cats, all of which are extremely happy.
Illustration by Morgen Dutil, Montserrat College of Art

Deemed by society as forsaken spinsters using felines to fill the void, these ‘unstable’ women are reclaiming the narrative and quite literally saving lives.

 

With disheveled hair, a lingering smell of mass-produced canned tuna and a brigade of feline companions behind them, preconceived notions about cat ladies are ingrained in society. For decades, audiences have laughed at characters like Eleanor, better known as “the crazy cat lady” from “The Simpsons”; portrayed as a quick-tempered cat fanatic, living alone in her hoarder’s abode, the recurring character and her disarranged nature became a source of pity humor.

To some, owning multiple cats indicates a poor mental state, something that alleviates loneliness for social outcasts. The fact that cats signify someone as one of society’s “others” is nothing new, and dates back centuries, with origins sharper and more menacing than a feline claw could ever be.

Cats are inherently mysterious ­— it’s in their nature. Maybe it’s their glowing eyes, their nocturnal tendencies or their love of hiding in strange places. What’s defined as a feline instinct was once considered superstitious, supernatural and incredibly sinister.

To this day, many consider a black cat crossing their path a sign of impending doom. According to an ASPCA study, there are more black cats in shelters than any other kind of cat. Some shelters even prohibit black cat adoption during October in fear they will become victims of cruel, ritualistic abuse.

A cat’s human owner, by association, has also gained the stigma of being odd. The Washington Post attributes this association to their pet’s snake-like pupils, going so far as connecting cats to the serpent in the Garden of Eden — also known as Satan.

These fuzzy creatures have even been associated with the Black Plague, as their hunting for rats may have helped transmit the disease that killed millions. Whatever the origin of their unfair connection to evil may be, those who have historically owned cats were also believed to be unsavory, the promiscuous nature of female cats during mating season being tied to unhinged female sexuality.

The witch trials are evidence of the life-threatening repercussions that come with being a cat lady. Those who owned cats were sometimes accused of using the animals as “familiars,” sidekicks to help them carry out black magic.

Along with their witchy roots, crazy cat ladies have also long been associated with mental health issues. The famous “Saturday Night Live” “Whiskers R We” skit, which has been performed multiple times with different comedians, is a prime example of the assumed characteristics of cat ladies — unhinged, eccentric and overly invested in imaginary narratives.

Viewers laugh at this eccentricity, and at one point, comedian Kate McKinnon — adorned in her granny-esque cardigan and oversized glasses — claims one of the cats is the reincarnation of a woman from the 1940s walking the Earth to clear up “unfinished business.”

Having an abundance of cats is often connected to obsessive hoarding, which is a mental illness detrimental to both humans and pets, but it is not limited to just feline owners. The ASPCA states that animal hoarding is a problem with a variety of species — ranging from rodents to reptiles. Unfortunately, the pre-established associations assigned to cat lovers seem to have made it a defining aspect of their identity.

UCLA conducted a scientific study to see if, in fact, cat lovers had higher rates of mental illness. However, the results proved that there was “no evidence to support the ‘cat lady’ stereotype — cat owners did not differ from others on self-reported symptoms of depression, anxiety or their experiences in close relationships.”

Cats have the ability to alleviate stress in their human companions, reducing resting heart rates and lowering blood pressure. Many people can benefit from the therapeutic nature of felines, from their decadent fur to their unique, one-of-a-kind meow.

The negative connotations that have long been linked to being a cat lady has recently changed among Gen Z and millennials and become its own aesthetic. Brands like Tuft and Paw, a designer that makes minimalist cat products, exemplify this up-and-coming trend.

There is a rising commodification and modernization of a once maximalist aesthetic tied to cats: The kitschy, primary-colored fabric mice and carpeted cat trees that once reigned supreme are being swapped for modish decor that fits in with one’s interior design. With thousands of results on Etsy for the term “Cat Lady,” from Rae Dunn-esque mugs to tees adorned with the phrase “Cat Mom,” the personality trait is something that is becoming increasingly relatable instead of an indicator of negative eccentricity.

Music icon Taylor Swift is a primary player spearheading the cat lady movement, as a byproduct of her quirky, wholesome personality. She even took to TikTok with chic red lipstick and stylish apparel to express how proud she is to be a cat lady, all while holding her posh Scottish Fold and Ragdoll cats and dancing for the camera.

Beyond Swift’s love of cats, positive celebrity representations of the animal are crucial in a society that favors dogs — according to an Associated Press poll, 74% of people prefer canines. There are millions of cats in shelters waiting to be adopted, as well as many in detrimental situations on the streets or in neglectful homes.

Hannah Shaw, aka “The Kitten Lady,” is a celebrity that takes her mission of rescuing cats to a larger audience. Donning tattoos and trendy clothes, Shaw makes approachable, engaging YouTube videos that educate viewers on cat health and wellness.  She also documents her life-saving kitten rescues that have won the hearts of over 1 million subscribers.

In an interview with Catster Magazine, Shaw discussed the perils of being a vulnerable, orphaned kitten amid the rapidly increasing population of felines in shelters — “with orphaned neonatal kittens, most shelters around the United States look at them as an untreatable condition and they’re euthanized almost immediately.” Cat ladies are the unsung heroes in society, rescuing the vulnerable from unnecessary euthanasia and giving them fulfilling lives.

Being a cat lady is something to be proud of and increasingly necessary as cat populations rise. Rescuing cats on euthanasia lists at shelters is one of the most rewarding ways people can literally save innocent lives, either through fostering or adoption. With the recent passing of Betty White, an esteemed animal rights advocate, the “Betty White Challenge” will live on beyond her 100th birthday, already raising $12.7 million for animal shelters from people across the globe donating in her honor.

As cat ladies gradually shed the “crazy” trope and embrace their crocheted sweaters and love of knitting, it is time to applaud them for carrying on what the ancient Egyptians started — an understanding that, with their scraggly whiskers and zany demeanors, cats are to be loved, leaving the negative stigma associated with felines and their human owners in hiss-tory.

Writer Profile

Lena Bramsen

The New School
Liberal Arts

Lena Bramsen has interests in writing, film and art history. When she is not crafting her next story, she is exploring the beautiful oddities that make up her lifelong home of New York City.

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