Breathes there a reader of this web site who has never heard the famed maxim, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”? Or “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle,” or some variation thereof.
This utterance is inextricably associated with feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who will be a nodding nonagenarian if she makes it to March 25th of next year. The phrase has been repeated and reprinted countless times over the last half-century. I suspect she never voiced this opinion to the men she was waiting on back in 1963 when she was working as a Playboy bunny.
Like any number of slogans that attain widespread currency, this one was cribbed. As is often the case when something new comes into the world, it is not the originator who gets the credit so much as the person who disseminates it.
The web site writingexplained.org offers some background on the fish-bicycle idiom. Apparently, Steinem picked it up from an Australian author named Irina Dunn. Now, you might wonder (maybe not if you’re from Australia), who was Irina Dunn? Well, there’s no point in dwelling on her because it turns out she admits she was just passing the phrase along. Apparently, it was a catch-phrase in feminist circles ini the late 1960’s, which doesn’t help us in explaining where it came from.
That brings us to Charles S. Harris. Who, you might wonder, was Charles S. Harris? Oddly enough, with a little Googling and enough leisure time, we can learn a few things about him.
Harris was a junior at Swarthmore College in 1958. A psychology major, he also wrote a humor column called “Quote” for the school newspaper, The Phoenix. He used the pen name Roccatorso, which is a reference to an annual campus musical revue in which he was a participant. In his April 7, 1958 column, he wrote, “A man without faith is like a fish without a bicycle.” That was it. No context, just a stand-alone snippet in a series of “jokes.”
Animal House aside, campus humor rarely induces guffaws. Here are a couple of other examples from Harris’s column that day:
The Beat Generation is the generation that didn’t beat Haverford [a nearby men’s college].
Whatsmore College, an institution for small coeds.
It is strange. The last I remember, I was at home studying Margaret Mead.
Oh, are you a grad student, too?
Oh, no, I am married to Margaret Mead.
Real knee-slappers, eh? Actually, the funniest thing in the whole newspaper was a front-page article about someone who had just returned from Cuba and described Fidel Castro, who was still months away from taking over the island, as a “typical, responsible, middle-class person.” A lot of words, pro and con, were employed to describe Castro in the ensuing years, but bourgeois was not one of them!
Even in the 1950’s Swarthmore tilted left so a lecture on the Cuban revolution would surely pack ‘em in. I grew up a few miles from the campus and the common image of Swarthmore was as a haven of beatniks and eggheads in an affluent suburban cocoon. It had an impeccable academic reputation…but was it the sort of place you wanted to send your kids? If you were a US Out of UN type, definitely not. On the other hand, if you were a Ban the Bomb type, you’d be thrilled if your kid got in. Maybe not so much today as the tuition is pushing $60,000. Of course, the Bomb is still with us and I can’t remember the last time I heard of a Ban the Bomb demonstration. Guess we’ve all learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.
If Swarthmore is an unlikely source of humor, keep in mind it was founded by Quakers, who are not given to rolling in the aisles in their meeting houses. At any rate, as it turns out, Charles S. Harris did not originate the phrase. I’m not saying he stole it. Perhaps he heard it in his childhood and it lay dormant in his memory for years. If so, he might have heard it from a bona fide funny man.
At some point during his career, the bibulous W.C. Fields said, “Scotch needs water like a fish needs a bicycle.” I can’t pinpoint when Fields said this, but since he died in 1946 that would put a cap on it.
Now if this saying can be traced back to Fields it would be a delicious irony, as he would certainly be classified as a misogynist today. The evidence is out there in quotations that have lingered long after he took his place among the ascended masters of comedy:
A man without a woman is like a neck without a pain.
Show me a great actress, and you’ve seen the devil.
Never try to impress a woman, because if you do she’ll expect you to keep up the standard for the rest of your life.
The nation needs to return to the colonial way of life, when a wife was judged by the amount of wood she could split.
Yes, I do like children…girl children…about eighteen to twenty.
I was married once – in San Francisco. I haven’t seen her for many years. The great earthquake and fire in 1906 destroyed the marriage certificate. There’s no legal proof. Which proves that earthquakes aren’t all bad.
I’ve never hit a woman in my life. Not even my own mother.
I’d rather have two girls at 21 each than one girl at 42.
Buried my wife the other day. Had to, she died.
I once wrote about him (“W.C. Fields: A MGTOW for All Seasons,” May 7, 2016) on this web site, so if you want to know more about him or read some more memorable quotations, just click on that link.
I wish I could credit Fields with coining the phrase, I can’t quite do it. I might be able to credit him with the fish, however. A number of Fields’s jokes have to do with avoiding water, the bane of any serious drinking man. Since fish live in water, they too are suspect. Famously, he once said he never drank water because “fish fuck in it.” This is sometimes cleaned up as “fish do disgusting things in it,” which may be even better, since it implies more than mere coitus.
But if we can give credit to Fields for the fish, why can’t we do the same for the bicycle? Because we have another quote that is even older. Consider an article by one W.L. Alden in the December 31, 1898 issue of the Hartford Courant . While reminiscing about his duties as American consul at a town in southern Spain, he described the sleepy pueblo by saying “The place didn’t need an American consul any more than a cow needs a bicycle.”
It may or may not be true that W.L. Alden originated that phrase. He might have heard it from someone else. But it is true that the bicycle became widely popular in the last decade of the 19th Century, so I think it would be a fool’s errand to seek a quote any older than his.
So there you have it. Mystery solved…sort of.
Given the fact that it’s been a half-century since Gloria Steinem popularized this slogan, isn’t it about time it was updated? How about…a woman needs a man like a fish needs an electric scooter. Of course, the saying is easy to invert: “A man needs a woman like a fish needs a bicycle.” But that’s too easy. We can do better.
How about “A woman needs an education like a fish needs a bicycle.” I would not say that aloud in public. Maybe a slight modification to “A woman needs an education like a fish needs student loan debt.”
Steve Martin couldn’t have said it better.