There’s an old bad joke: how many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? …
October 22nd, 2009


There’s an old bad joke: how many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is: that’s not funny.

Ha, hilarious, right? Actually, the answer should be: one, because that’s all it takes. It’s interesting how easily a group or movement gets branded as irrelevant through some falsehood that it lacks a sense of humour. The F word has been under a lot of scrutiny over the last several decades, and men and women have been debating its meaning and merits just as surely as hemlines have risen and fallen. I am thinking of the F word a lot this week, because I am embroiled in the 20th anniversary of the St John’s International Women’s Film Festival (, an event a few of us began a couple of decades ago without ever daring to think it would evolve into a big budget spectacle. But it has, and we are proud of it.

Putting on a show like this for several thousand people including five days of screenings and workshops and parties, receptions and special industry sessions now takes full-time staff and a 12-month-a-year operation. With few exceptions, the team is all-women. None of us from 18 to 60 years old has any trouble identifying as feminist and we would be shocked if someone suggested we should stop using the term. It’s our view that the rest of the world should get over itself.

A key point here is that if you want to get a lot done then just ask a bunch of women. Never mind changing light bulbs: I am talking about managing an extraordinary set of details, such as handling accommodations and logistics for out-of-town dignitaries, tickets sales, food supplies, technical demands, sound checks, program and publicity, printing, and so much more. I have written about multi-tasking before in this blog, and nothing shows the importance of being adept at juggling so many balls than an event like this. Keep in mind that many of us have right and proper day jobs.

It’s telling that the Hollywood film industry has largely kept women out of the top jobs. It’s pretty shocking, but in the last few years women have occupied only 6% of the director slots and about 11% of all the writing gigs. Pathetic. Whenever anyone from the media asks me why we are “still” hosting a women’s-based film festival I point to these stats. Jaws usually drop, and then, if they have a brain, they get it. Especially notable is that women have been able to occupy a little over 22% of the producer positions. That fact points to the skill set required for that job. A film producer is a project manager, the capable person who has her hands on everything, from getting the money together to lining up the cast and crew, making sure every single detail on the set is tended to and locked down. You might say it’s an enabling position, a role that normally claims no glory, because it allows the usually male director to get all the attention. When more and more women start sharing a piece of the directorial category and perhaps less of the producer category we will know progress is in stride.

I moderated a panel yesterday of women who are cultural foot soldiers in our local community, both emerging and established. The panel followed a screening of a lively documentary called The Real Matriarch which focuses on 4 strong women, each of whom speaks to how she got to where she is today ( Each has an amazing story to tell, and each emphasizes that she never took no for an answer. A recurring theme was having the passion to accomplish something meaningful, and then having the sheer dogged persistent to see it through. That sounds so obvious but when you are up against a thick wall of indifference, or, worse, active resistance, maintaining such persistence is heroic. I think a lot of people in the room yesterday men and women were listening hard to these women, trying to figure out what made them tick, and how we could get a little of that ourselves. That’s what role modeling is all about, of course, being able to inspire others with your own accomplishments, showing the way to possibility.

To extend the example to the experience of graduate students, we know that getting through a major piece of research depends on passion, persistence, and the example of others who have led the way, supervised our potential, and inspired us to do what they themselves have done. Ideally, that experience instills in us a strong work ethic, and by that I mean a passion for getting things done well and thoroughly. It also means learning to take on more than we might ever had done in the past, testing the limits of our own abilities. When we ultimately come through some tough graduate seminars and/or a dissertation we are acquiring the skills to handle a whole nexus of details, to handle complexity and a bigger set of tasks. You can’t tell me that graduate school doesn’t prepare you for coping with big stuff.

You have to trust me on this. Graduate school has had so much to do with why I have been involved in projects like organizing a film festival. I really did learn how to push myself forward, gaining the confidence to complement the passion I already had for the work at hand. That I happened to be a woman has, no doubt, made me push even harder. I am having a lot of laughs this week, too, popping light bulbs be damned.


Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

One Response to “There’s an old bad joke: how many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? …”

  1. Lori Covington says:

    How funny–I was just thinking of that joke yesterday, when a friend of mine (also female) started to tell a joke she’d heard, then stopped because it was totally sexist (and dirty as all get-out), then started again at my encouragement. After all, we were alone–who would hear? And then we both laughed our heads off at something that, ten short years ago, would probably have made us both furious.
    When I was an “ardent feminist”, I sometimes found myself laughing and then getting in trouble with other, even more ardent feminists. And I found it sad that, in order to advocate for equality, we had to give up something of our sense of humour.
    One upside of aging is being able to reconcile inconsistent attitudes–even within oneself. (Oh yeah, I’m old enough to be looking for upsides!)And a major upside of women making films (and writing them!) is that we have the chance to explore the inconsistencies of life and show its complexities–hopefully while still allowing ourselves to laugh.

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