Old cat lady with many cats

Mar 08, 2024

International Women's Day: Debunking the Crazy Cat Lady stereotype

Author: Sonja Farrell

The crazy cat lady stereotype seems to breed and morph on the Internet – but is it spiralling out of control? Fed by cat haters, insecure bloggers, tired journalists and even cat ladies themselves - it’s challenging to browse cat information online without coming across a ‘crazy cat lady’ reference. If it’s not online, we see it in films, cartoons, and the mainstream media.

The idea of the crazy cat lady has morphed into a symbol; an identifier for a woman who does not fit into what society deems normal. An (often single) woman of a certain age, who tends to live alone with her cat or cats, but this isn’t a clear-cut definition.

I am 35 and own two kitties I adore. I love cats so much I quit my job in 2013 to set up Cheshire & Wain. I wanted to dedicate my time to designing cat products so other kitties could feel just as special and loved as my cats two cats. By many people’s definition - that would make me a crazy cat lady. If I were a man, would I be called an entrepreneur instead? Who knows? 


This International Women’s Day, I thought I’d delve into this troupe to find out where it came from, how it’s evolved and how us cat women can hope to quash it once and for all. It may be tricky to debunk this popular culture favourite but here it goes! 

Men and wild-cat spirits 

Cat symbolism began with big cats being associated with power, mystery, hunting and magic. The nocturnal hunting habits of wild cats stalking their prey under cover of darkness and with eyes that shone like mirrors was deemed supernatural and superhuman. They were revered, feared, and often associated with high-standing male figures in society: warriors, chiefs, shamans and royalty.

As far back as 40,000 years ago, an Ice Age sculptor carved a lion-headed anthropomorphic figure from a mammoth tusk, showing that this human/feline relationship goes a long way back! The Lion Man (pictured below) is the earliest known surviving figurative sculpture in the world. 

In an ancient world without science, individuals believed strongly in the power of spirits and the importance of sorcery. Shamans were influential figures said to be in tune with the naturalistic world, able to converse with spirits and even transform into spirits themselves.

Shamans of the North American Prairie believed in an underwater panther called Nampe’shiu who resided in the third tier of the underworld and advised great warriors during battle; Amazonian warriors were referred to as ‘jaguars’, the Dayaks of Sarawak went into battle wearing leopard pelts and spearman of the Maasi wore lion manes. 

Countless myths across ancient cultures bear the association between big cats and men. It was not until the Ancient Egyptians that feline association shifted from the masculine to the feminine with the cat goddess Bastet. It is believed that worship of Bastet began in Bubastis some 4,800 years ago. Originally depicted with a women's body and the head of a Lioness, however this gradually changed following the domestication of cats in ancient Egypt. Fast forward to 2,600 years ago and her lion-goddess identity had mutated to resemble the domestic cat ( a meeker version of the wild cats they come from) more closely. 

The Cat Goddess 

John Bradshaw, in his book Cat Sense explains that Bastet was "originally a simple goddess who protected humankind against misfortune, [but] she later became associated with playfulness, fertility, motherhood and female sexuality - all characteristics of domestic cats" No negative connotations were attributed to this association, and both men and women left offerings to her at the cat temple of Bubastis.

In a cemetery in Upper Egypt a 4,000 year old tomb was excavated along with 17 cat skeletons. Alongside the cats were 17 small pots – probably once containing food or milk for the afterlife. 

Bastet figures from The Met Museum

Cats and witchcraft

Another popular reference to cats and women through history is the association with felines and witchcraft (a topic I touched on here in an article about the 16th-century witch craze). It was not just women who kept cats—they were also very popular with monks as companions while they wrote long manuscripts. Often, these texts featured little tableaus of cats chasing mice across the page. 

Hatred of hoarders 

It’s no secret that cats have fallen in and out of favour throughout history, from high points of being worshipped to low points of being burnt alive! At present, cats are mostly in favour, dominating the Internet in videos and cute pictures, but the hatred of cats is far from dead and buried. Even in this day and age some sick individuals target cats, poisoning, hurting and sometimes even killing them. But it isn’t just the cats who have a hard time – so do their owners. 

Extreme animal hoarding can be a serious problem that can affect the immediate community as well as be detrimental to the cats’ and the hoarder’s health. But true cases where hoarding has gone out of control to become a real problem are rare. Cases are often exaggerated for the sake of a story or blown out of proportion by cynical neighbours who find the hoarder’s behaviour strange and unacceptable. It is absurd to assume that cat hoarding is a condition that only befalls women. It is symbolism and cultural reference that has made the crazy cat lady troupe stick - crazy cat men are rarely referenced. 

The dog/cat gender divide 

Perhaps part of the association between women and cats comes from society’s need to force gender ideas onto our pets. With the two most popular domesticated animals being cats and dogs – it seemed sensible to dub dogs – “Man’s best friend” outside helping with manly things such as being outside… hunting and killing food, and cats being the opposite: as companions for women, women that are indoors, being domesticated and cooking food. With this split, even the animals are assigned a gender – cats are seen as feminine, dogs are seen as masculine. I’m hoping that in 2024 people shouldn’t be drawing these types of associations anyway, let alone onto pets! This crazy cat lady idea is the product of 21st century's outdated gender ideas and it’s something we should be moving on from. 

Cats and the Odd Woman  

Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Ella Mason and her Eleven Cats’ sheds some light on why women who keep cats are seen by society as odd. We learn that once:

Ella flounced about, minx-thin and haughty,

A fashionable beauty,

Slaying the dandies with her emerald eyes;

Now, run to fat, she's a spinster whose door shuts

On all but cats.

Some children make fun of her pointing and laughing as she feeds “her dearies” alone in her ramshackle house. “Miss Ella’s gone loony” and Plath has painted a picture of the crazy cat lady which has become so ingrained in popular culture today. The final stanza of the poem warns of the reason for Miss Ella’s misfortune driven to madness and alone because she did not get married:

But now turned kinder with time, we mark Miss Mason

Blinking green-eyed and solitary

At girls who marry—

Demure ones, lithe ones, needing no lesson

That vain jades sulk single down bridal nights,

Accurst as wild-cats.

Plath’s poem, written in 1957 explores themes still lingering from Victorian ideals of women’s place and role in society and herein lies the problem. At the turn of the 20th Century, women were seen as ‘odd’ if they were unmarried, they were seen as ‘hysterical’ if they went against their maternal role by rejecting a child as a result of post-natal depression.

But this is over 120 years since these Victorian beliefs - which are now so outdated and irrelevant, it’s time we said goodbye to the crazy cat lady and welcomed a new era of the Enlightened Cat Woman. A level-headed and influential female figure, like the soothsayers of ancient times who enjoys the company of cats and will do all in her power to ensure her pets live their best nine lives.   



Sources Referenced 

The Cult of the Cat, Nicholas J. Saunders

Cat Sense, John Bradshaw

The Secret Lore of the Cat, Fred Gettings 

The Art Newspaper

Ella Mason and Her Eleven Cats, Sylvia Plath

The Met Museum online catalogue of artefacts