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Everyone’s familiar with the cat lady archetype: She owns many cats, to which she devotes inordinate attention. She’s eccentric, romantically challenged, getting on in the years, childless, and quite possibly a lesbian. A spinster, if you will. She’s Britta Perry in her 30s, Liz Lemon in her 40s, and the Simpsons’ platonic Crazy Cat Lady in her golden years.
But how does this stereotype match reality? Thanks to advances in social science (ie the General Social Survey adding questions about pet ownership in 2018) we may finally have the answer.
Defining terms and building a sample
Unfortunately, the GSS doesn’t ask respondents, “Would you call yourself a ‘cat lady?'” so I had to cobble together the parameters from other variables, a task I undertook with all the gravity it deserved. Following are the variables we’ll be looking at. Their GSS synonyms are in parentheses next to the layman’s terms I’m using. If you’re curious about the wording of the questions, you can refer to the codebook.
The following are the criteria to be deemed a certified cat lady:
- Cat ownership (CAT)
- Owning multiple pets (NUMPETS)
- Almost always considering pets members of the family (PETFAM)
- Not owning a dog (DOG)
Women who don’t meet these rigorous standards are relegated to the status of “not cat ladies.” I also took a resample of the total sample to create a control group, which I misnamed “total population.”
Note: I restricted the sample populations to women between the ages of 35 and 60. This was a somewhat arbitrary choice I made to reflect the perception that cat ladies are of a certain age while trying to prevent generational differences and age from skewing results. When all was said and done, I was left with a sample size of 573—11 cat ladies and 562 non-cat ladies. I bootstrapped 5,000 samples from this sample to increase statistical significance.
These are the variables we want to test for group differences, broken into three groups:
- Mental health
- Mental health problem diagnosis (DIAGNOSD)
- Number of poor mental health days in the past 30 days (MNTLHLTH)
- Social life
- Satisfaction with social activities and relationships (SATSOC).
- How often they dine with three or more friends who aren’t family (DINEFRDS)
- Romantic and family life
- Sex frequency in the last year (SEXFREQ)
- Marital status (MARITAL)
- Number of children (CHILDS)
- Sexual orientation (SEXORNT)
The stereotype holds to varying degrees in different areas. In some, it appears flat-out wrong—in others, shockingly accurate. I’ll resist the urge to speculate about the findings and let you make judgements for yourself. Remember to refer back to the “defining terms” section to remind yourself what constitutes a cat lady. Also remember that my definition is…pretty loose and arbitrary. Don’t extrapolate beyond the information presented, and don’t take it too seriously.
When it comes to mental health, the stereotype appears thoroughly vindicated. Cat ladies are significantly more likely than the general population of 35-60 year old women and non-cat ladies to have been diagnosed with a mental health problem—nearly 34% of cat ladies have been diagnosed with a mental health problem versus an average rate of about 22%.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that they also report a higher average number of poor mental health days (around 5.23 out of the past 30) than non-cat ladies (4.33) and the total population (4.38).
By their own estimation, cat ladies are about twice as likely to have unsatisfying social lives as their peers. About 8.8 percent of cat ladies report poor satisfaction with their social activities and relationships, versus 4.2 percent of non-cat ladies and 4.5 percent of the total population of women aged 35-60.
But when it comes to meeting up with friends, cat ladies seem to do as well or better than other women. Sixty-three percent of cat ladies dined with three or more friends at least several times a year, compared with about 56 percent of their peers.
Romantic and family life
In accordance with stereotype, cat ladies seem to have fewer children than average. On average, cat ladies have 2.09 children, compared with about 2.25 for their peers. They are more likely not to have any children, but not by too much.
But in contradiction to the archetype, cat ladies are less likely to be unmarried or have never married than their peers. They are, however, more likely to be divorced.
When it comes to cat ladies’ sex lives, our cultural preconception appears very wrong. Cat ladies are only slightly more likely not to have had sex in the past year than other women, but they’re also over-represented at the higher end of the sex frequency distribution. Forty-eight percent of cat ladies had sex at least once a week, compared to around 40% of other women.
Finally, the question that’s been keeping you all up at night: are cat ladies more likely to be lesbians than the general population? The answer: not really. I’m holding back a plot or summary statistic because I’m planning a related blog post.
Okay, that’s all. If you have questions about the results or methodology, or you’d like another variable investigated, leave it in the comments or contact me directly.