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The meaning and origin of the expression: A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle

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A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle

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Meaning

A feminist slogan, humorously expressing the view that a woman can live her life perfectly well without a man.

Origin - the short version

This feminist slogan has often been attributed to either Gloria Steinem but was in fact coined by Irina Dunn in 1970.

Origin - the full story

"A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" is often attributed to the American feminist and political activist Gloria Steinem, or to the American feminist and political activist Flo (Florynce) Kennedy, or to an anonymous author who painted the slogan on a wall at the University of Wisconsin in 1969 (who we might also assume would have been an American feminist and political activist).

fish-bicycleGloria Steinem had this to say in a letter she wrote to Time magazine in autumn 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 later confirmed Steinem's version of events, in January 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 of 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."

Dunn's modesty is appropriate, as 'A needs a B like a C needs a D' was a well-established format in the USA many years before 1970; for example, this usage in the Connecticut newspaper The Hartford Courant, December, 1898:

The place [Aragon, Spain] 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.