Not Quite What I Expected

Wilson Diehl

Wilson Diehl
Seattle, Washington, USA
March 09
You can find more of Wilson Diehl's work on Babble, Salon, and her blog, She's also published some poems in some places and made a short film called "How to Go on a Man Date." She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa and teaches writing at Hugo House in Seattle.


Editor’s Pick
OCTOBER 26, 2010 10:14AM

How Many Feminists Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb?

Rate: 15 Flag

I almost died the other day trying to replace the headlight in my car. Well, I could have almost died had I removed the bulb from its packaging and handled the potentially lethal (according to the owner’s manual) high-voltage portion of it improperly. In the end I did not take this risk, as I was not even able to figure out how to access the part of the car where the bulb goes, much less how to swap out the dangerous old bulb for a dangerous new one.

When it comes to the mechanics of daily life, I’m not completely helpless. I pump my own gas, occasionally check (and refill!) my own oil, and once even inflated my own tires. When the toilet runs, my hand is right there in the tank, jiggling the rod, untangling the chain, and making sure the rubber tube is spraying where it’s supposed to. I enjoy the feeling of mastery over the physical world as much as the next person—but, if we’re being honest here, sometimes I just want a man to do things for me.

I figure since women birth the world’s children, bring cookies to the world’s felons, and teach, wipe, cradle, and forgive the world’s masses, the least men can do is change the headlights of cars.

In college when I was pursing a minor in women’s studies and in elementary school when I kept a tally of how many times the math teacher called on boys versus girls so I would have data to back up my perceptions of sexist treatment, I never imagined I would grow to have such retro-seeming gender politics. But the fact of the matter is, I’m a stay-at-home mom and naptime writer married to an emergency room doctor. By sheer force of earning potential, my life looks more nineteen-fifties in its labor distribution than I’d planned.

In my twenties, I honed a variety of skills—putting together Ikea bookshelves, operating a jigsaw, editing digital video—under the assumption that the key to wooing a man was demonstrating competence in as many arenas as possible. What man wants to pair up with a woman who needs him for stuff? When it began to seem like this might not be the most alluring approach after all—i.e. when I’d gone 23 months without a date—a friend gently suggested I might want to try a different tactic. “What are some things you’d let a guy be better at than you?” she asked.

Not quite sure what she was getting at, I puzzled over the question for a moment to come up with what I thought was a pretty strong list: cars, computers, and sports.

“Yeah,” she replied, “but what things that you care about would you let him be better at?”

Eventually I found a mate who is better than me at computers and sports as well as intubating people, starting central lines, and talking down crazy people. He’s also better at handling raw chicken, booking airplane reservations, and not freaking out when a jumpy, barking dog runs toward him. But when it comes to fixing cars, my husband is as helpless as me. When he tried to replace the headlight in his own car last week, he sliced his hand open and caused hundreds of dollars worth of damage to the car. One could argue that the mechanic’s bill was covered by the money saved by not having to go to the emergency room—or one could argue that he should have taken the car to the mechanic to have the headlight changed in the first place.

When my own headlight burned out a few days later, I didn’t tell my husband. Instead I drove to the nearest auto parts store, purchased a replacement bulb and located the guy with the most grease under his fingernails. “Do you have any  light bulb replacement tips?” I asked. What I actually meant was something along the lines of, Will you replace my headlight for me so I don’t get grease or shattered glass or whatever on my cute, flouncy dress or brand-new knee-high suede boots?

“You just twist—or pull—it off,” the auto parts salesman said, shrugging his sturdy shoulders. “It’ll be obvious once you get in there.”

Realizing I was going to have to go it alone—or pay a mechanic—I asked with genuine uncertainty, “So, does the clear plastic cover in front of the bulb just pop off?”

The salesman looked alarmed and clarified that one accesses one’s front headlights under the hood, not via the clear plastic part on the front of the car.

I nodded, like, Of course. I knew that—I was just making sure you did. Unfortunately my nod must have been convincing because instead of offering assistance, the salesman turned and walked away.

I returned to my one-eyed car and popped the hood. I peered in. I looked for something looking more or less like the cylindrical part of any common household lighting fixture but found instead a rather solid-seeming black plastic box with rather solid-seeming bolts holding it firmly shut.

Nothing about the situation was remotely obvious. Nothing appeared to simply pop or twist off, not without tools, certainly, and nothing in the salesman’s comment had suggested the use of tools.

I turned to the glove compartment for help, fishing out the owner’s manual from a pile of outdated maps and learning about the bulb’s deadly potential when handled “improperly.” I also learned I would have to more or less take the car apart to replace the killer bulb. According to the manual, it is “increasingly more and more difficult to replace vehicle light bulbs since in many cases other parts of the car must first be removed” to get to the bulb. This is particularly true of the light bulbs in the front of the car which can only be reached “through the engine compartment.” Not just difficult but increasingly difficult. Increasingly more and more difficult! Through the engine compartment!

In other words, I’m not a total idiot for being unable—or unwilling—to replace my own bulb. I’m not any less smart than, you know, your average car owner driving around for months and months in the dark with only one headlight or any less smart than your average woman living in a liberal town who identifies as a feminist but still wishes an auto parts salesman would condescend to her enough to offer to replace her damn burned-out light bulb.

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
This had me laughing and thinking at the same time. Especially the part about replacing a bulb becoming "increasingly more and more difficult". I wonder who decided that was the way to go?

The way I look at it, we're all good at some things and not so good at other things. Some of those things will fall along "gender" lines and some things won't. Every married couple just sort of works it out as they go along. And for things that neither are good at, that's when you hire a professional.

ms wilson ... that's why you have men ... "to show you what end to put it in" ... lew
ms Bonnie ... any good man will do it to "your satisfaction" ... lew
... (now, let's lift that hood) ...
I think one can be a feminist and still recognize there are legitimate gender differences. And one of them, in general, is that men, in general, are better than women, in general, at 3D visualization... that ability that allows one to turn and rotate a picture in one's mind to figure out how it best fits with another. Hence the comment: “You just twist—or pull—it off,” the auto parts salesman said, shrugging his sturdy shoulders. “It’ll be obvious once you get in there.”

And women, in general, are much better than men, in general, at using cute, flouncy dresses and knee-high suede boots to get said 3D transformation done for them.

But there are exceptions to every generalization, obviously.
In situations like this, offering a couple of fivers to "do it for me" sometimes works
Well, if you are, I am too. =o) I've changed some flat tires in my day, and I at least know where the dipstick IS, but it's my car, and I figure if I want something done efficiently, and safely, I'll ask someone to do it who actually knows how. There are things that I find worthwhile to know how to do for myself. Changing headlight lightbulbs isn't necessarily one of them.

My wife married me b/c I'm 6' tall. I can put up and bring down things that are on the top shelf.
I'm also a big intimadating looking guy that makes her feel safe in public. (that's awesome for my ego)

The fact that I'm a massage therapist is totally secondary.


oh, yeah, you are a lousy femenist ;]
So if it was a woman behind the counter at the auto store, you wouldn't have asked her? Because, as you say, you want a man to do things for you?

How about, you want an expert to do things for you? Someone with the know-how you lack? Unless you gender profile all your customer service reps, this article is more feminist-baiting than not. Like incandescent said, we're all humans with different skill sets. To look to an ignorant man to change your oil when a capable woman could is just silly.
Like others, I'm failing to see how this is a gender issue. Admitting you don't know how to replace a headlight bulb is just a grownup issue. Asking someone to please help you, or paying someone to help you, also is a grownup issue. And realizing that you have to be a tiny contortionist with superhuman finger strength to replace it it is just common sense.

Unless this is about being able to trump your husband, and then I'm all over that. :)
I wish someone would fix my car too. does that make me a feminist?
there are a lot of different ideas floating around in here.
(a) entropy. things break. I always think cars requiring constant repairs is a good example of this.
(b) lack of standardization of automobiles. in my opinion this is a failure of capitalism. or rather a triumph of narcissicm/egocentricity/marketing. if cars were made in standardized ways across mfgs, it would be far easier to fix them.
(c) complexity of modern life.
(d) complexity of living in cities.
(e) a way in which capitalism doesnt work well.
(f) the expense of labor. why should it cost $50 to hire someone to change a light bulb? but it does for cars.
Read The F***** Manual....

you know that book they include with things to explain how to operate and maintain it.

Or are you to dumb to read and folow pictures ?

this has nothing to do with gender just with being LAZY
Gee, I haven't changed a car light-bulb in YEARS. Seems to me the bulbs (headlight, brakes) used to give out fairly regularly, but now are quite reliable...

Also, used to be that if anything got done, I had to do it. Now I can pay for some things - like yesterday I got a guy over (and paid him! in dollars!) to put the tin roofing on a shed I'd built. I used to put the roof panels on myself, with roofing nails - but now it's all roofing screws, which entail a drill and special bit ... no doubt reasonably simple, but I'm old & tired ... and grateful to not have to throw them sheets 'o metal around...

In my day, I had two husbands (not at the same time). One could do nothing at all (he was an *artiste*), and the other who could do most things...except computers, which caused him much grief... I have to admit that it was nicer to have Most Things (including cooking and cleaning) done by someone else than to have to *Do Every Damned Thing*.
PS - You wrote a light-hearted piece, but, um, got a lot of solemn plonking responses... Touched a nerve, I suspect.
Beyond the gender dystropia some see in this piece, there's a certain lack of practicality. Sure, a broken headlight can be put off until the "appropriate" gendered person is assigned the task of replacing it. But what about a flat tire? Where I live there are long deserted stretches of road with little or no traffic in the wee hours.

As a guy who fixes things, I insisted that my wife and daughter both not only knew how to change a tire, but had practiced it successfully in a nice flat driveway on a nice day before I would comfortably let them out of my sight on a stormy, dark, deserted road.

Like John Muir said many years ago, "Know thine ass, for it bears you".

Just like a man should be able to change a diaper, cook an edible meal and do the dishes and laundry, a woman should know how to do basic car maintenance like changing tires and putting on chains. Either that, or don't drive anywhere. Some places we drive you'd freeze to death before AAA arrived.
It's not being a bad feminist to admit you don't want to do and/or aren't good at doing everything. In our house, I admit that I am the poorer cook, so most nights, I am relegated to dishwasher duty. On the other hand, I'm the marginally better organizer, so I write the bills and have been dubbed "finder girl" for my ability to locate lost objects.

The whole gender role thing is hard to ignore; I thought it had pretty much been neutralized, until I had a grade-school child. Those kids are SUPER aware of what boys do/ like vs. what girls do/like....and it's can't be from watching us parents!

BTW feminist or not, I still get frustrated when a hulking male colleague "lets" me carry the heavy document boxes while he bops ahead with only a day-planner. Didn't his mom teach him any manners? LOL
Glad to see so many people are doing their part to help keep the stereotype of the humorless feminist alive!
Feminists are superfluous. Find a real cause...
Would be easier with the help of auto guide. replacing headlight is truly an annoying task and i badly tell my experience in the past. That was when i was still naive with those stuff. I actually used screw drivers which is actually in appropriate. LOL. Fortunately, i have a cousin who possessed great knowledge. On the other hand, it is always best to check the lights especially if you are about to travel far places just to avoid accidents.