Gloria Steinem: A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle

Ah, the 1970s. Lots of important things happened then, including the political coming of age of yours truly. This crucial development in world history was only surpassed by things like the high point of the women’s rights movement. These two great events came together in that other late-60s and early-70s development — the t-shirt with writing on it.

T-shirts with sayings on them have been so common for so long now that it’s difficult for us to remember a time when they didn’t exist. But when I was a little Buzzling, kids wore plain white t-shirts, or solid-color collar-less shirts (which sometimes had stripes). The pop-art movement’s influence on advertising pretty quickly resulted in things like white t-shirts with, for instance, the Coca-Cola logo, or snappy written sayings printed on them.

The number of different images and different sayings or phrases printed on t-shirts exploded in the early 70s. And one of the most striking was the t-shirt from the women’s rights movement which said, “A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle,” most famously worn by the feminist champion, Gloria Steinem.

All the “with it” kids loved these kinds of sayings. “A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle” was philosophical in a way. It was also funny, and it was also hip. And you won’t be surprised to learn that Gloria Steinem gets credit for coining the saying. But it has a much older pedigree.

In print anyway, the concept started in 1859. A humorous piece in Hutchings’ Illustrated California Magazine by “Launcelot Gossenberry, esq., Poet Laureate,” posed the question, “What is a Bachelor?” It answered that question with a list of things like, “a ship without a sail,” and “a fish without a tail,” implying that a man needs a woman to be a complete and functioning entity.

From there, the phrase was off and running. It continued as the construction, “a man without a woman is like…” and was answered by things like, “a collar without a button,” and a shirt without a tail.” It was even turned into a popular song in 1909. By 1958, it had been turned around somewhat by religious skeptics. The phrase, “a man without faith is like a fish without a bicycle,” first appeared in the Swarthmore College magazine, Phoenix, in April 1958.

Through the 1960s, if you saw the phrase at all, you would have seen it as “a man without a woman is like a fish without a bicycle. But by 1970, an Australian university student, Irina Dunn, turned the phrase around. She wrote “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” on the doors of two public toilets in Sydney. It quickly became adopted as one of the most witty and direct expressions of 1970s feminism. And Gloria Steinem has long credited Irina Dunn as the genius who turned a worn old phrase into a pithy political statement.

There you have it, Buzzkillers. In one show, I was able to tie two of my favorite things into one Quote or No Quote episode: memories of my childhood, and the wonderful wittiness of Australians.

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