Out on 5 March, Alice Maddicott’s Cat Women: An Exploration of Feline Friendships and Lingering Superstitions is a moving exploration of the relationship between women and cats.
One summer, Alice was adopted by a beautiful tabby called Dylan, and together they shared six years of loving friendship. Alice collected second-hand photos – orphan images – and in her sadness after Dylan’s death, she pored over the old photographs of women and their cats. Cats in gardens, cats on laps, cats in alleys and on steps, accompanied by women who were diffident and affectionate, fierce and whimsical, young and old.
What did these cats mean to the women who cared for them? Why have cat-owning women always been viewed with suspicion? And where did the Crazy Cat Lady stereotype emerge from, when other cultures revere rather than fear this relationship?
Becoming a Cat Woman
I never thought I’d become a Cat Lady. But, as I think of it now, the strangest thing is that it is something you can become. You don’t become a dog or a rabbit lady, it is not seen as odd to keep horses or hamsters. In fact, few creatures have the power to define you as cats do. If I had chosen a different pet – for example, my childhood tortoise, which I still have – perceptions of me would not change. I would be the same. But Cat Lady is a thing. It is an identity.
When we call someone a Cat Lady we imply that they have left acceptable society, become unhinged, mentally unwell and desexualised; Cat Ladies have crossed over to an existence in which normal human relationships become inconceivable. It is something to be feared, as once it has happened it is unlikely to be reversed. It is a transformation. It is an end.
For the women who have cats, their relationship with their animal is a positive and beneficial thing. So where does this suspicion that cats can signify or bring about some sort of strange transformation in a woman’s being come from?
Why is it OK, seen as benign, to laugh at Cat Ladies when it’s clearly endorsing a sexist stereotype? We don’t say, ‘He’s a man with a dog – beware!’ We say, ‘Ah, man’s best friend! Who wouldn’t want to meet a nice man who owns dogs?’ Dogs are friends, acceptable companions. Cats, however, are something else entirely . . .
There are many mentions of cats in UK folklore – black cats are sometimes good luck; all cats can notoriously call up a storm, hence why sailors should never throw them overboard. In fact, that is what cats are doing when they scratch at carpets and furniture – not marking territory and destroying your house but controlling the weather. If a cat sits with their back to a fire it is sure to rain . . .
Cats were different, uncanny; they were intrinsically objects of suspicion in a way that other animals were not.
Prejudices like this don’t come from nowhere – to become so deep-seated they develop over time. Something in the idea was old – I could feel it. I spread out my pictures of unknown women with their cats and decided I needed to know more.
Cats vs Dogs
Without doubt, dogs are intrinsically ‘male’ and cats ‘female’. Dogs are not seen as a problematic pet for women, yet linguistically they are – to call a woman a bitch or a dog is a misogynistic insult. To say you old dog to a man can be a way to suggest approval of lascivious behaviour. It comes with a nudge and another beer. Men are never described in feline terms, unless in a camp cliché.
Cat-derived language is often a way of demeaning or sexualising women: women ‘purr’ when aroused for the benefit of men, wear kitten heels for cuteness or are described as kittenish when playing the coquette. Yet at the same time, women who own cats are seen to have renounced their sexuality, to have chosen feline companionship over the potential for a sexual relationship with a (let’s face it, male) mate.
Yet language that references cats is not just used to sexualise women, it can also suggest suspicion of women’s nature. Only women are ‘catty’. This word denotes a peculiarly ‘feminine’ form of meanness – men might say horrible things but be seen as more straightforward, more direct. Historically women were seen as gossips and gossiping was a sin. Cattiness and gossiping go hand in hand. To be catty is to be deceitful, to speak behind someone’s back. When a woman says something critical – usually specifically of another woman – it’s not unheard of for someone to say ‘meow’.
When it comes to writing, however, there are many famous cat men who do not suffer for their feline fondness. The infamously macho Ernest Hemingway adored cats and at his house had enough to make any woman fall squarely into the category of Crazy Cat Lady.
Yet Hemingway is not seen as any less manly for his admiration for the animals. Perhaps it helps that the cats were unusual – they were polydactyl, meaning they had six toes, and were reportedly all descended from Snow White – a sailor’s cat given to him. Sailors tended to favour this genetic mutation as it purportedly helped with mousing and stability on ship. Let’s for a moment imagine a woman with a clowder of six-toed cats becoming an increasingly introverted writer – witch alert! But Hemingway remains the role model for a certain literary macho type, and the descendants of his six-toed cats still inhabit his house – now a museum – today. Maybe boozing and bullfighting is simply sufficient to cancel out Crazy Cat Man.
In my day, adolescence was the time to avoid cameras like the plague, and I am not the only one who felt this – in my collection of photos, those of teenagers or adolescent girls are the scarcest, yet those I have found have proved some of the most moving. Would the photo have been taken at all if it were not for them being lost in the moment with their cat, or wanting to have their beloved feline friend recorded for posterity? They might have felt that they would live forever, but their pet . . . at all ages there is a poignancy in the fleetingness of pet lives. The girls’ future may have been wide open, but their cats would not be there to see it through.
Though we might feel physically awkward at times, our teenage years can be both when we explore the outside world most thoroughly, and through our intense friendships and imaginings create the most vivid interior world we may ever have. This is the age when we write diaries, devising secret codes for people we come across socially. This is when we can have a relationship with our pet free of the accusation of Cat Lady – perhaps not even knowing what the expression means. Yet here the bond is no less intense; the cat can feature as an ally in this vivid interior world as much as a good friend can.
Cats are sensitive creatures, they pick up on moods, and so I wonder if they enter this dreaminess too? Is there something different in the expressions of the cats in these photos with their teenage owners – are they part of this excitement, this wistful optimism, or conversely the depths of despair when things don’t turn out as planned? Is it a place of thought magic cats are quite comfortable in?
Why Cat Women?
I have always been interested in ‘found photos’; I feel a keen poignancy in these images of people that have been left to be looked over and bought by strangers.
In a time when photography was far more difficult and expensive than it is now, someone had once thought the subject important enough to want to preserve their image. These were people who were loved, yet had since been forgotten, and no one was keeping their memories safe. I later discovered from an archivist friend that these found photos are actually known as orphan images. I thought perhaps I would use them as inspiration for projects or stories, that even if I didn’t know who they were I could rehome their photos, adopt them, and they could live again, just a little.
Who were these cats? What were their personalities like? We, as humans, have graves and epitaphs and obituaries, but with the exception of neglected garden markers and posh Victorian pet cemeteries, pets are not memorialised. All these lost characters – all that forgotten love, the head nudges and kneading, the calming strokes and playfulness . . . I wanted to do something that would celebrate them in a way they never could be through a grave, so long after death.
These cats and their women. They will no longer be lost.