Why “Childless Cat Ladies” Is Dangerous Political Rhetoric

And the long history behind these attempts to define who counts as an American

Lindsay Chervinsky, Ph.D.
3 min readAug 27, 2021
Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

At the beginning of the month, Senate candidate J.D. Vance decried “childless cat ladies” as lesser Americans. In particular, he pointed to people like Vice President Kamala Harris, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex, and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. It’s easy to roll your eyes and dismiss this statement as ridiculous campaign rhetoric, especially because they aren’t particularly accurate statements (Harris has two step-children, Buttigieg just adopted a child, and they have dogs!). But it’s actually dangerous language designed to categorize certain people as lesser than others.

Here are some selections from the article that I wrote for my monthly column at The Hill:

Since the ink dried on the Constitution in 1787, Americans have contested and debated who counts as a citizen. Alexander Hamilton favored city-dwelling merchants and traders as ideal Americans, while Thomas Jefferson preferred yeoman farmers. Both agreed that “republican motherhood” was the ideal role for women. Raising educated and virtuous citizens was the best way women could contribute to the future of the nation. If women appeared to step too far beyond the confines of the home, they were often viciously criticized. For example, in 1805, Mercy Otis Warren wrote “History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution” and was particularly critical of the John Adams administration. Adams responded: “History is not the province of the ladies.”

A few other snippets of the article:

Several decades later, advocates for women’s suffrage faced similar pushback to their demands for full citizenship. Remonstrants, or anti-suffrage activists, argued that the nuclear family was the basic unit of republican government, which required male authority over his family. This concept posited that women were represented by their fathers, brothers or husbands. Women who competed with men for jobs or engaged in political intrigue threatened to tear apart the nation’s social fabric. For example, Mrs. Madeleine Dahlgren argued that suffrage was not a natural right, as “idiots and lunatics” didn’t vote. She encouraged women to accept their place in the hierarchy, which was based on “immutable, fundamental, and higher social laws.”

These efforts evolved and continued several generations later:

The debate over the proper role of women citizens took on new life in the 1970s with the rise of the New Right and prominent figures such as Phyllis Schlafly. Schlafly argued that the family was “the basic unit of society” in which the husband has “the duty of financial support” and women have the privilege of “physical, financial and emotional security of the home.”

By framing advocates for women’s rights as “radicals who are waging a total assault on the family, on marriage, and on children,” Schlafly asserted that women shouldn’t engage with politics, but rather stay at home.

Read the full story on The Hill:

‘Childless cat ladies’ and the long history of regulating who counts as an American