American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Spinsters, Old Maids, and Cat Ladies: A Case Study in Containment Strategies

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Ellen Berry

Second Advisor

Vikki Krane (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Sarah Smith Rainey (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Marilyn Motz (Committee Member)


Using Michel Foucault's notion of containment strategies, this dissertation argues that representations of the crazy cat lady, the reprehensible animal hoarder, the proud spinster, and the unproductive old maid negatively frame independent, single women as models of failed White womanhood. These characters must be contained because they intrinsically transgress social norms, query gender roles, and challenge the limitations of mediated womanhood. In order to explore the role of representation, this dissertation provides a suggestive history of the ways spinsters and old maids evolved into their current iteration, the cat lady. The research begins by tracing cultural representations of cats and women from 2000 BCE through the early modern period. After this retrospective, the research focuses on two particular points of cultural anxiety connected to changing gender roles: the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries. During the former, the media characterized spinsters and old maids as selfish, proud, unnatural, unproductive, and childish in newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets. Rather than focusing exclusively on the negative coverage, this dissertation deeply analyzes three transgressive novels, Agnes Grey, An Old-Fashioned Girl, and Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman, to contextualize the ways positive representations of spinsters and old maids could threaten patriarchal society. At the turn of the 21st century, spinster and old maid became outmoded terms, but the cat lady emerges as a postmodern version of the same cautionary tale. Fictional television characters like Eleanor Abernathy from The Simpsons and Angela Martin from The Office are deconstructed, revealing the ways the framing and editing contribute to narratives of failed femininity. Participants from reality TV shows like Hoarders and Confessions: Animal Hoarding and the documentary film Cat Ladies are analyzed to demonstrate the ways factual representations further pathologize the cat lady by associating her with hoarding and mental illness. This dissertation illustrates how a marginalized, peripheral character like the cat lady serves as a tool for social maintenance, reinforcing heteronormative gender roles and containing alternative versions of womanhood.