The History Of Women & Their Feline Friends

The cat woman is a classic trope that’s been around as long as movies themselves. Some of our favourite films with female protagonists, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to La Dolce Vitta to Alien, feature women and cats. But why? What does the inclusion of this particular type of furry friend add to the discourse of our fave films, and what does it say about the women they sit alongside. 

It’s easily argued that women who feature along side cats are seen as wild and unattainable. Cat’s are seen as aloof and stuck up creatures; animals who make you crave their attention and distribute it to you sparsely. They’re independent, and it’s rare that women in film who are presented as owning a cat begin the discourse of the film with a romantic partner. In fact, I can’t think of a single example, but feel free to correct me.

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's

The earliest iteration of cat ladies comes in the form of women who lived alone who during the Middle Ages. On the rare occasions that women supported and lived by themselves, they would often have cats simply because they were useful to have around. Keeping out the rodents and ensuring the safety of their supply of food was a huge task and a helpful attribute that meant cats were ensured a warm place to sleep. However, the general domestication of cats began even before the middle ages, back in the time of Ancient Egypt, where they were again used to kill mice and save crops. Cats were, evidently, so highly regarded that early Goddesses from both Ancient Egyptian and Greek mythology are often described as having feline attributes.

Cat Ladies first became a symbol of the peculiar in Medieval Europe, when they were regarded as soulless beasts. Now I could go into a bit more info on this, but if you’ve read this far I am assuming you love cats, and so I don’t want to put you through the weeping that I endured researching this article. Let's just say, just like single females during the period who were persecuted as witches, cats basically fared the same fate. I like to think this is what makes out bond so strong, we both know we’re outsiders.

In more recent history, cats seem to hold a special place in the hearts of literary women. This is probably because women who write are largely stuck at home all day so liked the company, but authors such as Harrier Beecher Stowe, Emily Bronte and Patricia Highsmith have all shared a special affinity for cats.

Edie Beale from Grey Gardens

Edie Beale from Grey Gardens

In film and TV today, cats can mean two things for the women they’re paired with. Women who own cats are seen as responsible and loving, as they selflessly care for a creature who supposedly does not love them back. Notably, this is the opposite to their male counterparts, because when men are presented as owning cats it’s seen as surprising, as men could not possibly love something that does not love them back. Equally, women who look after stray or wild cats in film are regarded in a different way. Cats who roam free and refuse to stay in one place are seen as representative of their companions, such as Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Edie Beale in Grey Gardens.  These women are seen as wild and unattainable. I think I like those cats best.