The Rooster May Crow, But It’s the Hen Who Lays the Egg

Margaret Thatcher? Ann Richards? Joel Chandler Harris? Uncle Remus? African-American folklore? Anonymous?

thatcheregg01Dear Quote Investigator: Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, passed away recently, and I was reminded of a pointed saying that is credited to her. Here are three versions:

  • The cock may crow, but it’s the hen who lays the egg.
  • It is the hen that lays the egg, and the rooster crows about it.
  • Roosters crow; hens deliver.

Did she use this expression, and did she coin it?

Quote Investigator: Margaret Thatcher did employ this saying, but it has a very long history, and she did not craft it originally. In 1989 the Sunday Times of London published an appraisal of a biography of Thatcher, and the reviewer, Robert Skidelsky, stated that he heard her use a version of the expression in 1987. Boldface has been added to some passages below: 1

Above all, Thatcher never hid her belief that women are better than men at getting things done. She brought to government “the tendency of the indefatigable woman to suppose that nothing would be done right, unless she personally saw to it”. “The cocks may crow, but it’s the hen that lays the egg,” I heard her proclaim at a private dinner party in 1987. Men are the talkers, the dreamers: Women are the doers.

The above citation was included in “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations” compiled by Nigel Rees. 2

A precursor saying using a different phrasing was in circulation by 1659 as noted in an entry in “The Wordsworth Dictionary of Proverbs”: 3

The cock crows but the hen goes. 1659: Howell, 19. 1670: Ray, 5. 9.

A strong conceptual match written in heavy dialect was printed in 1881 in “Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-lore of the Old Plantation” by Joel Chandler Harris. Harris became famous in the 1800s recording and printing tales from the African-American oral tradition: 4

Rooster makes mo’ racket dan de hin w’at lay de aig.
[The rooster makes more racket than the hen that laid the egg.]

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1883 a Californian periodical called “The San Francisco Merchant” printed a statement expressing a similar idea with wordplay: 5

The most useful lay member of society is not the rooster who does the crowing.

Over time the spelling and phrasing of the quote assigned to the Uncle Remus character changed. Here is an instance in 1898 in a book by Haldane Macfall: 6

“Rooster makes more racket dan de hen what lays de egg” UNCLE REMUS

In 1904 a variant was printed in a Kansas City, Missouri newspaper as a freestanding saying without attribution: 7

The rooster does all the crowing, but it is the hen that lays the eggs.

In 1907 a Denver, Colorado newspaper printed an instance with the word “cock” instead of “rooster” that was similar to the phrase credited to Thatcher. A remark about the quote was appended: 8

“The cock crows,” says the Canon City Canon, “but the hen lays the egg.” Sounds as though the paper had a woman editor, eh?

In 1914 a newspaper in Grand Rapids, Michigan printed an article about a poultry show that gave two versions of the saying in the headline and in the first sentence: 9

HENS DELIVER GOODS, ROOSTERS MAKE FUSS
Why does the rooster crow when the hen lays an egg?

In 1916 a columnist “Walt Mason: The Poet Philosopher” embedded the expression in an extended commentary: 10

Please note this little fact, I beg: It is the hen that lays the egg; the rooster does the yelling; he flaps his silly wings and crows, and points with pride a while, and throws some fits around your dwelling. And every time I hear him whoop and prance around the chickencoop, a-feeling hunkydory, I think of husbands I have known, who think that they, and they alone, deserve the praise and glory.

In 1944 a newspaper in Richmond, Virginia printed an advertisement for a realtor company that included the saying which was oddly designated a “new proverb” from England: 11

In England the war has been stimulating the making of many new proverbs, among which are the following:
“Two in a hurry catch the same ambulance.”
“No ink is as red as blood.”
“The cock crows, but the hen lays the egg.”

In 1949 the phrase collector Evan Esar placed the aphorism in “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”, but he used traditional spelling: 12

HARRIS, Joel Chandler, 1848-1908, American writer, creator of “Uncle Remus.”
The rooster makes more racket than the hen that lays the egg.

In 1963 a Springfield, Massachusetts paper published this instance: 13

Chickens are all mixed up. The hen lays the egg and the rooster crows.

In 1989 the Sunday Times of London printed a remark by Robert Skidelsky about Margaret Thatcher using the saying in 1987 as mentioned previously in this article:

“The cocks may crow, but it’s the hen that lays the egg,” I heard her proclaim at a private dinner party in 1987.

In 1989 the Dallas Morning News printed a story titled “When Talking Texan, This Dog’ll Hunt” with the following version of the aphorism and attribution: 14

Female superiority — Liz Carpenter said, “Roosters crow; hens deliver.”

In 1991 Thatcher used the expression during a speech in Washington, D.C. The context indicated that Thatcher intended “crows” to refer to members of think tanks and intellectuals who were speaking and writing but were not taking effective direct action in the world. “Hens” referred to elected politicians who were implementing policies. 15

I am afraid I had to make this point rather brutally to a dinner given by a British think tank at which politicians counted for little and it was the ideas and influence of intellectuals that really ruled the world.

I was forced to remind them that although the cock may crow, it is the hen that lays the egg.

In 1992 at a fundraising event in San Francisco, the Governor of Texas, Ann Richards, said the following: 16

“As we say in Texas, the rooster may crow, but the hens deliver the goods.”

In a book published in 2007 the journalist and historian Paul Johnson described the dinner party in the 1980s during which Thatcher spoke the adage: 17

Thatcher, prime minister, busy and overworked, had to wait until nearly midnight before being called to speak. She was livid, and I did not blame her. So was I, after two hours of all-male self-congratulatory prosing. She began: “As the tenth speaker and the only woman, I have this to say: the cock may crow but it’s the hen who lays the egg.” I laughed long and loud, then suddenly realized I was the only one who thought it funny. The rest of the room sat in stunned silence.

In conclusion, Margaret Thatcher did use this expression, and other political figures such as Ann Richards employed the saying. But it can be traced back more than one hundred years to African-American folklore, and precursor sayings existed centuries earlier.

(For help and suggestions, thanks to Jonathan Betz-Zall, Mary Somers, Dan J. Bye, Dennis Cunniff, Suzanne Watkins, and phibetakappanitwit.)

Notes:

  1. 1989 April 9, The Sunday Times (of London), Section: G: Books, Housewife Superstar by Robert Skidelsky, (Book Review of “One of Us: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher”), Page G1, column 4, London, England. (NewsVault GaleGroup; also Academic OneFile GaleGroup; special thanks to Jonathan Betz-Zall, Mary Somers, and Dan J. Bye)
  2. 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Noise, Page 305, (Cassell, London), Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 2006, The Wordsworth Dictionary of Proverbs, Entry: Cock, Quote Page 105, Column 1, Wordsworth Editions Limited, London. (Google Books Preview)
  4. 1881, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-lore of the Old Plantation by Joel Chandler Harris, Plantation Proverbs, Quote Page 151, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1883 July 20, San Francisco Merchant, Editor: A. D. Bell, (Freestanding quotation without attribution), Quote Page 301, Column 2, The Merchant Publishing Co., San Francisco, California. (Internet Archive) link
  6. 1898, The Wooings of Jezebel Pettyfer by Haldane Macfall, (Epigraph to section titled “In the House of Mirth), Quote Page 206, Grant Richards, London. (Google Books full view) link
  7. 1904 April 08, The Rising Son, [Freestanding quotation], Page 6, Column 6, Kansas City, Missouri. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1907 March 12, Denver Post, Smoke Wreaths by Bide Dudley, Subsection: Colorado Notes, Page 16, Denver, Colorado. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1914 January 7, Grand Rapids Press, “Hens Deliver Goods, Roosters Make Fuss”, Quote Page 12, Column 5, Grand Rapids, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  10. 1916 May 18, Watertown Daily Times, Walt Mason: The Poet Philosopher, Page 4, Column 4, Watertown, New York. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1944 September 5, Richmond Times Dispatch, (Advertisement for Realtors: J. Thompson Brown & Co. with heading “New Proverbs from the English”), Quote Page 6, Column 7, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)
  12. 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Quote Page 86, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York)
  13. 1963 September 6, Springfield Union, (Freestanding saying without attribution), Quote Page 6, Column 4, Springfield, Massachusetts
  14. 1989 March 26, The Dallas Morning News, Section: Texas & Southwest, “When Talking Texan, This Dog’ll Hunt” by Kent Biffle, Page 37a, Dallas, Texas, (NewsBank Access World News)
  15. 1991 September 23, Speech by Margaret Thatcher in Washington, D.C., First Clare Booth Luce Lecture, Source: Thatcher Archive, Margaret Thatcher Foundation. (Accessed margaretthatcher.org on April 13, 2013) link
  16. 1992 October 20, San Francisco Chronicle, Women Raise Thousands For Feinstein and Boxer by John Wildermuth, Page A8, San Francisco, California. (NewsBank Access World News)
  17. 2007, “Heroes: From Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to Churchill and de Gaulle” by Paul Johnson, Quote Page 263 and 264, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Google Books Preview; thanks to Suzanne Watkins for pointing to this cite)