On the back of a rust-pocked Honda headed north on the Southeast Expressway the other day was a bumper sticker of Gloria Steinem's classic summation of the social revolution. ''A woman without a man,'' it proclaimed, ''is like a fish without a bicycle.''
Funny, and fair enough, and maybe even an understatement of the case. I was reminded of the sticker a few days later when I found myself on a dairy farm in Shelburne in central Massachusetts, just south of the Vermont border. Up at the end of Wilson Graves Road, the farm has been run by the Graves family since before the Revolution. They milk about 100 Holstein-Friesians, grow apples and produce maple syrup. It is a wonderful place to go, particularly in October, when the leaves are aflame and the apple crop is in. All of the cows have names. James Graves, who is in charge, knows them by sight, no small feat when you realize that all 100 of them are black and white and, to the inexpert visitor, each is indistinguishable from the others. The farm breeds its own stock via artificial insemination. The semen, which, according to Graves, can cost from around $8 to more than $800 per charge, is kept frozen in liquid nitrogen in a receptacle that greatly resembles one of those big, insulated coffee urns institutions use in cafeteria lines. Some of this precious stuff was donated by bulls which long ago were converted into hamburger. The female calves are culled. Some stay with the herd, and some are sold to other dairies. Almost all of the bull calves are sold as vealers. Having neither social nor economic roles, the bulls never even get names. Mammals generally resemble each other in their reproductive function. It seems sensible, then, for enlightened modern women to select high-grade donated semen for breeding rather than risk random sampling. Men, thereby relieved of the responsibilities traditionally associated with siring offspring, will, in consequence, be truly liberated to devote themselves to warfare and sport, poetry, music, dalliance, larceny and theological speculation. Children, of course, have in recent times become consumer goods in free- market competition for discretionary income. Leaky and noisy, enormously costly to maintain, barely trainable and demanding of a parent's time for two decades or more, children no longer confer economic benefit. In years past, a child was capital, a source of cheap labor and of security for one's old age. The contrary is now the case. The adult son or daughter competes against the parent for shares of the gross domestic product. The Steinem quotation works even better for the male of the species than it does for the female -- i.e., ''A man without a woman is like a fish without a bicycle.'' Men no longer are expected to provide either economic support or protection or comforting authority to the women with whom they have sexual congress. Indeed, the male who expresses such proprietary notions subjects himself to ridicule or rejection or both. Why should a man in his right mind support a woman capable of supporting herself? ''Forsaking all others,'' in the words of the old ceremony, seems extreme. Many, of course, do not. The new male role of sharing domestic chores converts the one-time patriarch and lord of the manor to the role of cleaning person, baby sitter, dishwasher, janitor, etc., and sometime invader of his spouse's privacy. Rendered obsolete is the old implied contractual bargain that a man supports and protects a woman and her offspring in exchange for sexual favors and domestic amenities. Romantic love, it is said, is by definition adulterous. Much hostile criticism of so-called ''welfare poppas'' who are said to drift from woman to woman without taking responsibility for the support of children misses the point. The roving stud who permits himself to accommodate and be accommodated by women is far more in tune with the social revolution than some atavistic boyo who works two jobs so his wife can change diapers or changes diapers so his wife can run a word processor. Ditto the fraternity- house ''date rapist.'' I think I might enjoy being kept as a pet. I am prepared to sit up, lie down and roll over almost indefinitely if shelter and reliable treats are provided. I am a bit concerned, however, about the role of women in combat. ''A kinder, gentler nation'' might not wish to risk so ferocious a prospect.
DAVID B. WILSON is a Boston Globe columnist