A Woman Without a Man Is Like a Fish Without a Bicycle

Gloria Steinem? Irina Dunn? Erica Jong? Florynce Kennedy? Charles S. Harris? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A famous feminist slogan asserts that a woman is capable of living a complete and independent life without a man. Here are two versions:

  • A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.
  • A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.

Would you please explore the origin of this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published instance known to QI appeared in “The Sydney Morning Herald” of Sydney, Australia in January 1975. The expression occurred as an unattributed graffito. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

We found this anonymous contribution to International Women’s Year on a wall at Forest Lodge: “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”

Thanks to Fred R. Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations”, who located this citation and shared it with fellow researchers. Prominent feminist Gloria Steinem often receives credit for this saying, but she has ascribed the words to the Australian social activist Irina Dunn who claimed that she created the adage and wrote it on a bathroom wall in 1970. More details about these assertions are presented further below.

QI believes that the saying evolved from a family of related expressions. Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1858 a newspaper in North Carolina reprinted a poem from a paper in Winchester, Virginia. The humorous lines of verse commented on bachelorhood: 2

What a Bachelor is Like?

From the pen of Launcelot Goosenberry, Esq., Poet Laureate, and dedicated to all Poets and Poetesses around these diggings.

Why a pump without a handle, A mouldy tallow candle,
A goose that’s lost its fellows, A noseless pair of bellows,
A horse without a saddle, A boat without a paddle!
A mule—a fool, A two-legged stool!
A pest—a jest! Dreary, weary, Contrary, uncheery—
A fish without a tail, A ship without a sail. . .

The phrase “a fish without a tail” was an intriguing precursor to the modern expression. The underlying formula was: a man requires a woman in the same way that a fish requires something essential. Years later the genders were swapped and the notion was subverted.

In 1867 a newspaper in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania printed a set of similes about democracy and alcohol: 3

Democracy without whisky is like a kite without bobtails, and can’t soar. Or like a ship without ballast, and keels over.—Or like a lamp without oil, which goes out. Or like a fish without water, it dies. Or like a woman without a husband, she refuses to be comforted.

The above excerpt showed another example of a fish together with a required item. It also mentioned an archetypal woman who was dependent on a man.

In 1880 a religious journal printed a simile using a fish that underlined the importance of faith. This was an interesting precursor because the 1958 citation shown further below subverted this expression and used a fish paired with a bicycle: 4

Venerable Hofbauer used to say: “I am like St. Louis, I do not want to see miracles; my faith has no need of such proofs. I do not see how any one can live without believing; a man without faith is like a fish out of its natural element.”

In 1898 and 1899 newspapers in Hartford, Connecticut 5 and Wilmington, Delaware 6 published an essay by an American named W. L. Alden that included a simile with a cow and a bicycle:

Along in 1886 I was the American consul at Aragua, a town in the south of Spain about a hundred miles from the coast. The place didn’t need an American consul any more than a cow needs a bicycle; for it had no trade with America, and no American tourist ever dreamed of stopping there.

The above citation displayed an interesting transition in the evolution of these adages. The consul had little value to the small town in Spain just as a bicycle had little value to a cow. The template was similar to that used by the modern expression. Interestingly, according to a correspondent in Spain the town of Aragua, Spain does not exist. QI believes that the story and the town in the article were probably fictional. The author Alden who was a diplomat in Rome wrote humor pieces.

In 1916 a novel titled “Mary-‘Gusta” by Joseph C. Lincoln used a precursor figurative expression based on a fish paired with a useless item. In the following excerpt the main character is told that she does not need to work at a store: 7

“We don’t need you at the store, do we, Shadrach?”
“Not more’n a fish needs a bathin’ suit,” declared the Captain, with conviction. “You go see some of the girls and have a good time, Mary-‘Gusta.”

In 1943 members of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) sang lyrics that harkened back to the 1858 citation. The song included an addendum that stated men were invaluable to women: 8

Oh a man without a woman is like a fish without a tail,
He’s like a boat without rudder, like a ship without a sail;
Oh, a man without a woman is like a wreck cast on the sand;
There’s only one thing worse in the universe,
It’s a woman without any man (I said a woman),
A woman without any man.

In 1958 a student newspaper called “The Swarthmore Phoenix” printed a collection of humorous quotations under the pseudonymous byline ROCCATORSO. The writer is identified further below. The key phrase “like a fish without a bicycle” appeared in a critical remark about faith: 9

“A man without faith is like a fish without a bicycle.”

In 1967 song lyrics similar to those from 1943 were mentioned in a speech given at a school by a politician in Wisconsin. The song penned by students at Girls’ State depicted the reciprocal dependence of single-sex schools for men and women: 10

A man without a Girls’ State,
Is like a ship without a sail,
Is like a boat without a rudder
Is like a fish without a tail …

But if there’s one thing worse in this universe,
It’s a Girls’ State, I said a Girls’ State,
It’s a Girls’ State without a male.

In 1972 a version of the 1958 statement continued to circulate. An instance with “religion” instead of “faith” appeared in a letter to the editor of a Madison, Wisconsin newspaper: 11

While I have felt for years that a man without religion is like a fish without a bicycle, I long ago gave up fighting people’s superstitious beliefs. As far back in history as ancient Rome, that fight failed.

In 1973 a columnist in a Tuscaloosa, Alabama newspaper wrote about graffiti and listed several examples found around Tuscaloosa: 12

Nobody cares about apathy.
Blow your mind. Smoke gunpowder.
A man without faith is like a fish without a bicycle.

In January 1975 “The Sydney Morning Herald” reported that the saying under examination was seen written on a wall locally: 13

We found this anonymous contribution to International Women’s Year on a wall at Forest Lodge: “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”

In March 1976 a newspaper in Westport, Connecticut noted that the saying appeared on a poster: 14

“A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle,” according to a poster in feminist bookshops.

Also in March 1976 a newspaper in Pecos, Texas stated that the adage appeared on a bumper sticker: 15

Somebody put out a bumper sticker, reading, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”

In May 1976 a newspaper in Chicago, Illinois profiled a Washington author and socialite named Barbara Howar who credited a variant expression using the phrase “fish needs a bicycle” instead of “fish without a bicycle” to an unnamed feminist: 16

“A feminist said recently an independent woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. That’s horsefeathers, at least for me. I like what I’m doing but I’d like someone to scratch and giggle with.”

In July 1976 an Ohio newspaper printed a collection of “Exciting Utterances of the Year” and credited the saying to Gloria Steinem: 17

TARZAN WHO? AWARD
Gloria Steinem, Feminist
“A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”

In December 1976 Howar ascribed the saying to the best-selling author Erica Jong: 18

“Did you see what Erica Jong wrote?” she asks steamily, referring to Jong’s statement, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”

In March 1977 a newspaper in Waterloo, Iowa credited activist Florynce Kennedy while remarking that the slogan was available on buttons: 19

It was Florynce Kennedy, the feminist lawyer, who said “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” Now you can get that saying on a button.

Nigel Rees, a BBC broadcaster and quotation specialist, explored this saying and shared his findings in the 2001 reference “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”. In 1999 Rees communicated with a psychologist based in New Jersey named Charles S. Harris who asserted that he wrote the humor piece in the 1958 “Swarthmore College Phoenix”, and he coined the skeptical expression about faith: 20

I do know where the fish without a bicycle came from: an intro philosophy class at Swarthmore College in 1955. In reaction to our assigned reading of St Augustine, I wrote: “A man without faith is like a fish without a bicycle.”

Rees also presented a claim from the most likely creator of the saying under examination, Irina Dunn:

She says she wrote it in at least two toilets in 1970, spinning it off from something in one of her textbooks—“Man without God is like a fish without a bicycle.”

Dunn was located in Sydney, Australia, and the earliest known newspaper citation appeared in that same city in January 1975.

In conclusion, this article provides a snapshot of current knowledge. QI believes that Irina Dunn probably created the saying circa 1970 by modifying the statement constructed by Charles S. Harris circa 1955. Both of these individuals were working with a family of expressions using figurative language that had been evolving for decades.

(Great thanks to Dixon Wragg whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks Rosalie Maggio, John S. Allen, Nigel Rees, Fred Shapiro, Charles Doyle, Bill Mullins, Victor Steinbok and Stephen Goranson for their research on this topic Thanks also to researcher Gary Martin who wrote about the valuable 1898 citation. In addition, thanks to mailing list discussants Ann Burlingham, Jesse Sheidlower, Laurence Horn, John Baker, Arnold Zwicky, Jonathan Lighter, and Gregory McNamee. Thanks to Belén Marín who suggested that the town name Aragua might be an error or joke. Additional thanks to mailing list discussants Barbara Schmidt, Brian Whatcott, John Cowan, Dennis Cunniff and Anne Rojas for their helpful comments about the place name Aragua.)

Update History: On October 22, 2016 the citation for November 6, 1858 was added to the article. It replaced an 1859 citation for the same poem. On November 15, 2017 a note about Aragua was added. On November 25, 2017 the discussion of Aragua was further updated.

Notes:

  1. 1975 January 25, The Sydney Morning Herald, Article Title: “Column 8”, Quote Page 1, Column 8, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1858 November 6, The Greensboro Times, What a Bachelor is Like? by C.T.W., (Acknowledgement to Winchester Virginian), Quote Page 4, Column 4, Greensboro, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1867 April 10, Juniata Sentinel, Democracy and Whisky (Acknowledgment to Charles Jay in the Trenton Sentinel of Trenton, New Jersey), Quote Page 2, Column 3, Mifflintown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1880 September 25, Ave Maria: A Journal Devoted to the Honor of the Blessed Virgin, Volume 16, Venerable Hofbauer, Quote Page 770, Column 1, Notre Dame, Indiana. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1898 December 31, The Hartford Courant, Besieged by W. L. Alden, Quote Page 15, Column 1, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
  6. 1899 March 28, Every Evening (The News Journal), Besieged by William L. Alden, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Wilmington, Delaware. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1916, Mary-‘Gusta by Joseph C. Lincoln, Quote Page 266, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1943 October 29, The Courier-Journal, An Old Navy Song Returns As a Wac Ditty by Damon Runyon, Quote Page 7, Column 4, Louisville, Kentucky. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1958 April 7, The Swarthmore Phoenix, Student Newspaper of Swarthmore College, “Quote” by ROCCATORSO, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. (Digital Archive at triptych.brynmawr.edu)
  10. 1967 July 30, Chicago Tribune, “How to Govern the Great State of Wisconsin–A Roadshow Starring Warren P. Knowles” by Ridgely Hunt, Quote Page I22, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)
  11. 1972 July 25, Madison Capital Times, Voice of the People: Sports Are New Opiate of People by Hank Oettinger, Quote Page 30, Column 4, Madison, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)
  12. 1973 August 26, The Tuscaloosa News, The Popular Arts: Graffiti Old Pop Art Form by Jim Salem, Quote Page 10D, Column 1, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Google News Archive)
  13. 1975 January 25, The Sydney Morning Herald, Article Title: “Column 8”, Quote Page 1, Column 8, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1976 March 19, The Westport News, BOOKS/Reviews and acquisitions by Hope Hale Davis, (Review of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray), Quote Page 22, Column 1, Westport, Connecticut. (NewspaperArchive)
  15. 1976 March 24, Pecos Enterprise, Kickin’ around: What’s he got that I haven’t? by Gene Douglas, Quote Page 10, Column 2, Pecos, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  16. 1976 May 5, Corpus Christi Times, Barbara Howar: Social, Yes, But She Knows How to Calculate by Patricia Moore (Chicago Daily News), Quote Page 6C, Column 3, Corpus Christi, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  17. 1976 July 1, The Courier Crescent, More award winning phrases, (Acknowledgement to Shelton-Mason Co. Journal), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Orrville, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)
  18. 1976 December 19, The Akron Beacon Journal, Howar’s coming to TV: Sugar — but mostly spice by Mary Daniels (Chicago Tribune), Quote Page K1, Column 1, Akron, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)
  19. 1977 March 16, Waterloo Courier, We all have pet sayings by Phyllis Singer, Quote Page 17, Column 3, Waterloo, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  20. 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Women, Quote Page 459 and 460, Cassell, London and Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper)