The myth of the “crazy cat lady” seems universally accepted these days. But where did it come from? It’s origins are difficult to pinpoint. Though the Edies of GreyGardens were pioneers of the cat lady persona, it’s taken on a different connotation in the here and now.
With some basic Googling, I was able to find mentions as far back as the early 90s, but the phenomenon certainly seems to have gained ground and more widespread adoption in the last 10 years. The Simpsons’ Eleanor Abernathy may be one of the first mainstream media manifestations of the crazy cat lady. The stereotype was further addressed as the subject of a 2009 Canadian documentary Cat Ladies.
There’s a marked difference between Abernathy’s elderly character and the extreme cat-obsessed behavior of the women in Cat Ladies and what people mean when they use the term now. The crazy cat lady has morphed from the AARP age bracket and eccentricity to articulate the fate of women who don’t marry. Women who find themselves single, over 30 and in possession of more than one cat.
One entry on the ever popular and accurate (user-created) reference source, the UrbanDictionary, defines a “crazy cat lady” as
“a woman, usually middle-aged or older, who lives alone with no husband or boyfriend, and fills the empty lonely void in her life with as many cats as she can collect in one place.”
There’s less crazy in the crazy – it’s less about behavior and more about status.
In today’s interpretation, the cats are merely the trappings of single woman needing to fill the “empty lonely void.” In fact, the similarly accurate and user-generated reference behemoth that is Wikipedia suggests “spinster” under the “See Also” section.