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.

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

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)

Bigamy Is Having One Spouse Too Many. Monogamy Is the Same

Erica Jong? Oscar Wilde? Robert Webster Jones? H. L. Mencken? Anonymous?

 

Dear Quote Investigator: As a single person I enjoy the following joke about bigamy. Here are two versions:

(1) Bigamy is having one husband too many. Monogamy is the same.

(2) Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same.

The first has been attributed to the best-selling novelist Erica Jong, and the second has been credited to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. I haven’t been able to find this remark in the works of Wilde. Are these ascriptions accurate?

Quote Investigator: In 1973 Erica Jong published a scandalous blockbuster titled “Fear of Flying” and the first chapter used the following as an epigraph: 1

Bigamy is having one husband too many. Monogamy is the same.
—Anonymous (a woman)

Note that Jong did not credit herself indicating that the joke was already in circulation.

QI has found no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde wrote or said this joke. The variant using “wife” instead of “husband” does have a long history. In 1922 the book “Light Interviews with Shades” by Robert Webster Jones included a quip that displayed several points of similarity including the use of matching vocabulary terms “bigamy” and “monogamy”: 2

They say bigamy means one wife too many; but so does monogamy sometimes.

Precursor jokes on this theme were being disseminated by 1841 as shown below. QI believes that the modern quip evolved from these antecedents.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Bigamy Is Having One Spouse Too Many. Monogamy Is the Same

Notes:

  1. 1973, Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, (Epigraph of Chapter 1), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York. (Verified on paper in 3rd printing July 1974)
  2. 1922, Light Interviews with Shades by Robert Webster Jones, Chapter 1: Bluebeard Tells Why He Killed Wives, Quote Page 18, Published by Dorrance & Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link