Crazy Cat Lady: The History of Cat Memes, Rooted in Feminist History

by | Mar 16, 2020

The crazy cat lady is a stigma that is often forced upon women, particularly those who are unmarried. While the world of #Bookstagram may have looked to partially reclaim it (often boasting fun and creative photos of books accompanied by cats and cups of tea), the gendering of this creature is historic and stems back to The Suffragette movement.

The cat’s journey began as a common symbol used on anti-Suffrage campaigns and propaganda, particularly on widely spread postcards. Cats who appeared sad were displayed within a domestic sphere to act as a warning; suffragettes and women’s liberation groups were a threat to the classical and traditional family home and set up. Emasculated husbands and fathers were presented as cruel victims, having to pick up the slack by engaging with household duties.

However, the narrative around domestic duty was expanded upon through the classically sexist discourse which the cat was used to build upon. The cats also represented The Suffragette themselves. The intent was to portray the woman as silly, infantile and incompetent; the characteristics which made them totally ill-suited for political engagement.

Yet in turning this symbol on its head, the Suffragettes proved through quick wit and intellect exactly why they were credible players within a mass political game.

The Prisoner’s Act 1913 was a government response to the imprisoned Suffragettes who bravely went on Hunger Strike during their incarceration. The women fought against the fact they were excluded from the political sphere once again with the government’s refusal to legally recognise them as political prisoners.

Following violent force feeding, prisoners who were ill or suffering were temporarily freed in order to recuperate, or even die, before facing rearrests. This looked to prevent the creation of martyrs, while freeing the government or prisons responsibility for their deaths.

In response, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) produced posters of their own. This time, the cat now presented a violent government who toyed and chased with its female prey. The subversion was so successful, the act is now more commonly referred to as “The Cat and Mouse Act”.

Women have since forced themselves into political discourses. Women have had to be resourceful in using unexpected means, such as humour, to make their mark and take up space within a still prominently male dominated landscape.

The US still have not had a female President. As it stands, The Labour Party have never had a female leader. Nationally, as of February 2019, only 24.3% of all parliamentarians were women; in The UK 2/3 of parliamentary seats still belong to men. And for those
women who do find themselves within politics – they still face unjust scrutiny for issues outside of their politics.

MP Tracy Brabin faced mass slaughter for wearing an off-the-shoulder dress which slipped when she leaned over the despatch box due to a broken ankle. The furore led to #shouldergate and much critical debate as to whether she was disobeying the dress code. Little attention was paid to how while men in parliament must abide this formal dress code, for women it is not so clear-cut. There is no dress code for women. Women are still considered one-off outsiders within The UK’s political sphere and so there is no need for the same clarity to be provided.

Similarly, Finland Prime Minister, Sanna Marin’s capabilities have been repeatedly undermined by the media for being a woman who is “only” 34. She heads a cabinet and a coalition which is dominated by women, particularly young women under the age of 40. Often forgotten and underrepresented by the media, gender equality spans outside Europe. Rwanda is the country which has the highest number of female parliamentarians, with 61% within its lower chamber.

While the cat may no longer feature so heavily within political propaganda, its message lives on. Women remain naturally excluded from the political domain and the duty to subvert this still remains. The struggle for intersectional feminist representation continues as the UK fails once again to elect an openly trans or non-binary MP. Ten trans hopefuls ran in the 2019 election, they were all white, and none of them were successful. The fight lives on, and the fierceness of the cat is going to need to be embraced to ensure intersectional feminism reigns victorious.

Written by Issie Levin


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