By Kiri Blakeley
The strange and strong bond between women and cats.
Courtney Kistler is a 28-year-old single gal who lives in New York City. She's sociable, outgoing and attractive. But that hasn't stopped Kistler's mother from worrying that her daughter, a freelance marketer, will never catch a husband--because she owns three cats.
"[My parents] think it's a little weird," she says of her multiple cat ownership. In fact, Kistler's mother has been known to ask her cat-loving daughter: "What if you want to bring a guy home? What would he think?"Six Self-Help Books Women Love and (Most) Men Won't Read
While Kistler's last boyfriend wasn't too fond of her felines (he refused to pet them), the two men she dated before that (who both grew up with cats) were fine with them. Still, her mother worries. Says Kistler: "She's bought into the stereotype, and what am I going to do? I can't deny it exists."
Laura Adamson, a 23-year-old graduate student in Gainesville , Fla. recently learned some of the negative responses that can befall a single woman with a cat. After she adopted a kitten that had been tied up in a pillowcase tossed to the side of the road, Adamson began telling people her new pet's miracle story. Instead of being awed, some of her listeners called her a "crazy cat lady." She adds: "Usually they follow it up with 'Do you take the cat for walks?' or 'Does it eat at the table with you?' "
Friends started sending her cat video clips, and her boyfriend bought her a slew of cat lady paraphernalia for Christmas, including a card customized with a picture of her and Eleanor Abernathy, known as the Crazy Cat Lady from The Simpsons. "I don't know why it's not like this with women who get a dog," she laments.
Women who own cats have become synonymous with old spinsters or, more recently, with romance-challenged (often career-oriented) women who can't find a man. In the recent comedy The Ugly Truth, beautiful Katherine Heigl's hopeless love life is instantly conveyed by her cat ownership.
Even cat loving women can fall prey to this way of thinking. Betsy Saul, owner of one cat and cofounder of animal adoption site Petfinder.com, says that when she visited a married couple who had 17 rescued cats, she found herself wondering of the husband, "How can he put up with this?"
Et tu, Betsy?
"They were living with their cats very much equally, and yet I had this thought," she says. "Clearly, there's a bit of misogyny and a societal sex gender bias going on."
Cats have overtaken dogs as the most popular pet in the U.S. (93 million feline pets versus 77 million canines). And while a recent sampling by the American Pet Products Association, a trade group, found that of 463 cat owners, 80% were women, certainly plenty of men harbor felines.
Yet cats and women have a strong historical and cultural connection--much of which has resulted in negative stereotyping, especially of single female cat owners. The stereotype has become so pervasive that there is a Canadian documentary, Cat Ladies ("When cats mean 'meow' to you than people") following four of them. There's a blog, Crazy Cat Ladies Society, dedicated to subverting the stereotype, and there's the elderly The Simpsons character who emits incoherent gibberish and lives in a decrepit house with numerous cats.
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Experts can't seem to quite pinpoint when exactly "crazy," "old," and "cat lady," were strung together to create one specific stereotype, but why it happened isn't too difficult to figure out.
On the whole, women live longer than men. That means there are going to be many more elderly women at any given time than elderly men. Elderly women who are widowed, and whose children have moved out, may find themselves with time on their hands--and a hungry stray cat to feed (and since unaltered cats will quickly breed, one stray soon becomes a whole yard full).
Cats, being small and self-sufficient, don't need much in the way of care, which would be perfect for an older woman. Not to mention that some of these women may have, indeed, been off their rockers. Says psychologist and animal welfare advocate Pia Salk: "Dementia is a function of getting older; an older woman caring for one or more cats may in fact appear 'crazy.' "
One study shows that cat "hoarders" are overwhelmingly female, but that again may be the function of the relative ease of keeping a cat versus a dog. Hoarders, who have a psychological condition that makes them overcollect animals to the point where they can no longer care for them, often start out as "rescuers," people who merely want to help strays. Women are probably more drawn to stray cats and kittens than stray dogs, simply because they are smaller and easier to round up.
But the link between women and cats doesn't stop there. Women, just like cats, are often branded as sneaky, slinky, mysterious, hard to read and impossible-to-please. Women are often shunted into either the Madonna or w---- category, just as cats have been either revered as deities (ancient Egypt ) or vilified as demons ( Salem witch trials, 1692).
Etymologically, there are some interesting feminine (and often negative) connotations to words like kitten (a sexy girl), cougar (an older woman who likes young men), catty (being spiteful and malicious--and generally used to describe women) and, of course, p----, a word that is interchangeable for a cat or a part of a woman's anatomy. Catwoman is a famous DC Comics villainess.
What's behind all of this?
Historically, there is a strong connection between women and cats. While cats, which were domesticated 10,000 years ago, are excellent natural hunters, they are also savvy enough to hang around where they will get fed. A mutually beneficial relationship developed.
"Cats were ratters or mousers inside of the home, and women traditionally worked inside of the home," says animal expert Andrea Arden, who appears on Animal Planet's Cats 101. Dogs, on the other hand, were given specific tasks like hunting, guarding or pulling wagons, which required them to be outside with men.
"Cats are smart," says pet care expert Charlotte Reed. "They know where the food is, and it's women who are usually feeding and caring for everyone." Dogs, on the other hand, became "man's best friend."
Then there's the personality of a cat. Because cats, unlike dogs, are not pack animals, they can come across as independent and aloof. Dogs, which are bred to be in a constantly juvenile state, tend to act like slobbering children enthralled to the leader of the pack.
Some experts believe that these different personality traits are what generally draw women to cats and men to dogs. "Canines offer a more consistent reflection of one's status as alpha," says Salk. "They deliver doting behavior without their male human having to ask for it and are seen as less of a threat [than cats]."
Cats, while social and playful, are more like the Simon Cowells of the animal world--getting their approval isn't so easy. So why are women more okay with these less obvious displays of affection? "It may be that women are more intrinsically gratified by nurturing others, and therefore do not need an external reflection to reinforce caretaking behavior," theorizes Salk.
Still, plenty of men, and even some of the most macho ones in history, like Ernest Hemingway and Sir Winston Churchill, have been fanatic cat lovers. And as men work more hours and have less time to devote to training and exercising a dog, cats have become a more attractive option for the average guy.
Petfinder, the largest online pet adoption site, does not keep statistics regarding adoption demographics, but cofounder Betsy Saul says, anecdotally, that more men than ever are adopting felines. "Cats are losing some of their negative mystique," she says.
Adds Salk: "A growing population of newly liberated male cat lovers would help reduce the number of adoptable homeless animals killed each year. There is no shortage of amazing cats waiting to be loved by a studly guy!"
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