Conversation Starters

The Strange Historical Origin of the Crazy Cat Lady

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woman with cats

Before they were the face of single ladies and lesbians, cats were the face of the anti-suffrage movement, according to a fascinating article in Sociological Images tracing the political history of British felines. In the early 1900s, conservative propagandists used pictures of cats dressed up like suffragettes in an effort to make women activists look “silly, infantile, incompetent, and ill-suited to political engagement.”

But because cats are the perfect poster animal for everything, as both Buzzfeed and conservative early-20th-century English cartoonists know, they also circulated images of “unhappy cats,” an attempt to symbolize “a threatened traditional home in need of a woman’s care and attention.” And when the politics began to shift, cats stayed front and center — but now they were aggressive governmental tom cats terrorizing suffragette mice.

Then again, it’s no surprise that cats have long been semiotic flip-floppers — they’ll lend their whiskers to anything, as long as you feed them.

Image via NYPL