A bit of herstory:
the definitive word on the origin!
The letter below, from famed feminist Gloria Steinem, appeared in Time
magazine sometime in September or October 2000.
In your note on my new and happy marital partnership with David Bale, you
credit me with the witticism 'A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.' In fact,
Irina Dunn, a distinguished Australian educator, journalist and politician, coined the
phrase back in 1970 when she was a student at the University of Sydney. She paraphrased
the philosopher who said, "Man needs God like fish needs a bicycle." Dunn
deserves credit for creating such a popular and durable spoof of the old idea that women
need men more than vice versa.
Irina Dunn has confirmed this story, in an e-mail of January 28, 2002:
Yes, indeed, I am the one Gloria referred to. I was paraphrasing from a phrase I read
in a philosophical text I was reading for my Honours year in English Literature and
Language in 1970. It was "A man needs God like a fish needs a bicycle". My
inspiration arose from being involved in the renascent women's movement at the time, and
from being a bit if a smart-arse. I scribbled the phrase on the backs of two toilet doors,
would you believe, one at Sydney University where I was a student, and the other at
Soren's Wine Bar at Woolloomooloo, a seedy suburb in south Sydney. The doors, I have to
add, were already favoured graffiti sites.
Irina Dunn has also submitted biographical
information about herself. In response to questions about the wording of the saying as
she coined it, and how it spread, she responded:
I imagine that the saying, which was, NB, "A woman needs a man
like a fish needs a bicycle" was carried forth into the world by the growing numbers
of women in the newly born women's movement. Perhaps someone else also read the same
phrase in the same book and also paraphrased it? I doubt it, though.
The wording of the campaign button and bumper sticker sold in the United
States is "a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle" -- different
from Dunn's wording and possibly changed in order to obtain a copyright. Asked whether she
regretted not holding a copyright on the saying, Dunn replied:
Yes, I suppose I wish I could have made some money out of it, but tant pis,
it's too late now and it's fun to see what's happened to it.
A copyright on the original saying would have most likely prevented
it from spreading. And it did spread -- rapidly. The following e-mail message by a reader
of these pages is a bit perplexing because it suggests that the saying had reached the
University of Wisconsin before it was coined! Most likely the author of the message
doesn't remember the date accurately. He would have to had attended the University for
more than the usual four years to have seen the message before 1970.
I first saw this homily ("A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.")
as one of hundreds of graffiti on a construction fence surrounding the future Humanities
Building at University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 1960's. (Someone out there
probably knows when the building was built.) The entire fence became something of a
cultural icon for Madison and its Student Movement, with obscure graffiti and elaborate
artwork. Not long after the original graffito appeared it was joined by this sentiment,
soon reproduced on feminist t-shirts and posters "Behind every great woman is a fish
on a bicycle."
UW Madison Class of '74
Another comment on Gloria Steinem's marriage
The Web site creator's family was listening to the car radio when we heard
the news that Gloria Steinem, a founder of Ms. magazine, had finally married at
age 66. From the back seat, without skipping a beat, my 9 year old son shot back:
"Well, now they should call it 'Mrs.'!"