Language has always been one of the most ubiquitous mirrors to the human experience. Eternally morphing in sync with evolving cultures and societies - at times even driving that social change - words naturally take on new meaning and significance in all languages as time goes by.
In the postmodern era, we see a new style of linguistic evolution that is not a part of this cultural progression by happenstance. A more deliberate effort to bring words that are coined with the purpose to create discussion, and/or to include socio-cultural movements into language; is increasingly visible today, largely thanks to social media and hyper-connectivity in the 21st century.
‘Womxn’ is one such word that has generated buzz in recent times. And no, the ‘x’ is not a typo. It’s usage is intended to be an alternative to the word ‘woman’, and is also to be inclusive of transgender, non-binary and other marginalized people. The thing is - understanding ‘Womxn’ as a topic requires an approach that is not quite as simple as ‘black and white’ or ‘yes or no’. Getting informed on this topic needs a more nuanced approach and a listening ear.
Confused? We’re here to break it down, for ourselves and for you, so that we may all be able to have a well-informed point of view. Read on as we explore the origins, intentions, implications, impact, and opinions about this alternative to the word ‘Woman’.
‘Womyn’, ‘Wimmin’ & ‘Womxn’
‘Womxn’ is not the first alternative to the word ‘woman’. The origins of this term lie in the halls of intersectional feminism. Alternatives to the word ‘woman’ have often been used within the intersectional feminist movement.
At this point, you may wonder “Why are alternatives to the term ‘woman’ deemed necessary by intersectional feminists?”
In Natalia Emmanuel’s article ‘Why I chose to identify as womxn’, she states, “The word ‘woman’ has evolved from its initial spelling of ‘wifmann’, meaning ‘female human.’ What some may notice, is that the word ‘man’ then simply meant ‘human,’ implying that wifmann were an extension of men. Overtime, this word developed from Old English into its modern day spelling of ‘woman,’ which as we can see (much like modern day bridal traditions) still holds its roots in patriarchy, a system that gives men accessibility to positions of power from which womxn are excluded.”
Masculine spellings and terms are used as a default option in language. Historically, the word ‘Man’ has been used as a stand-in for all humans. ‘Man’ is treated as an interchangeable synonym for ‘human’ in common speech and writings. The implication that a ‘woman’ is a derivative of the word ‘man' in this context, has been called out by feminist's movements and their allies.
Changes in spelling of the word ‘woman’ to ‘womxn’ is done in an effort to reiterate that womxn are human beings independent of gender-normative stereotypes, capable of having their own agency and their own identities without dependency on a man. This change in spelling is meant to be intersectional, and include transgender womxn, womxn of color, womxn from other marginalized groups, and all those who self-identify as womxn.
Harvard sociologist Keridwen Luis, says that feminists have experimented for decades to devise a suitable alternative for the term identifying the female gender. Other examples stemming from the feminist language reform movement, which began around the 60s and 70s in the west,, include terms such as ‘Herstory’ (a reclamation of the word ‘history’ in an effort to include the much excluded feminine perspective), and the change from using ‘Miss.’ or ‘Mrs.’ prefixes to simply ‘Ms.’ (to match the ‘Mr.’ prefix, which does not imply any marital status).
Thus, historically, there have been several alternative spellings to the word ‘woman’ or ‘women’ - such as ‘womyn’, ‘womban’ and more recently, ‘womxn’.
The letter ‘x’
The usage of the letter ‘x’ is often in conjunction with other words, to coin terms such as ‘Folx’ or ‘Latinx’ in order to push back on the problematic nature of binary centered language. (male vs female).
While ‘X' is commonly used as ‘the unknown factor’ in algebra, the origins of which are explained by linguist Teddy Moore, in his brief and witty TEDx Talk, its usage in language is more ambiguous and left to interpretation.
The alternative spelling with the letter ‘y’ - ‘womyn’ - faced severe back lash from transgender activists, as it was deemed a TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) term. The word ‘womxn’ was coined with the intention to remedy that, and create an inclusive term, using the letter ‘x’ instead of ‘y’, because the usage of ‘x’ is known to be an LGBTQIA+ and gender inclusive signifier.
With the letter ‘x’, the intersectional feminist movement hopes to go beyond simply creating a ‘man’-free spelling for women. Their intention is to also include intersex, non-binary, transgender, and any other person on the planet that identifies as ‘female’ - regardless of their sexual orientation, the color of their skin, religion, caste or creed.
‘Womxn’ and gender identity
Gender identity has become a hot-topic amongst the Twitterati and academics alike this year, due to controversial comments infamously made by author J.K.Rowling. This unfortunate series of events, however, has sparked a global discussion about sex and gender identity - sometimes in a toxic way, but also at times spurring mature and informative conversations that refute the author’s statements.
Firstly, we would like to take this opportunity to examine what ‘gender identity’ means.
‘Gender’ and ‘sex’ are not the same thing. Your ‘sex’ is a biological label given to you by doctors at birth based on your anatomy, while gender is a more complex and layered concept. Gender encompasses social and legal status, expectations from society, characteristics, thoughts, and many more intangible factors.
‘Gender identity’, thus can be completely separate from sex or sexual orientation. Gender identity is what you feel inside, and how you express your gender through clothing, behaviors and personal appearance. It is a feeling that begins very early in life.
Also, gender does not simply contain ‘male and ‘female’. There are several genders apart from the two, including but not limited to non-binary, demigender, agender, etc. Here’s a glossary of gender identities and terms by Healthline to help you understand the wide spectrum ‘gender’ stands for.
So what does the term ‘Womxn’, or even it’s male counterpart ‘mxn’, have to do with gender identity? The term is meant to do away with the stereotypical gender definitions and be inclusive of all those whose gender identity falls under the spectrum of ‘female/femme’. It is meant to be its own separate identity that doesn’t an extension of the word ‘Man’, in an attempt to build a safer space for all who identify as women in a systemically patriarchal world.
‘Womxn’ and the transgender community
The older alternative spelling to ‘woman’, termed ‘womyn’ is known to be a TERF term, that is used with the purpose of holding on to biology-exclusive female identities, while excluding transgender women. A part of the second wave feminism was the term ‘womyn-born-womyn’. Radical feminist groups, like the UK based RadFem collective, exclude transgender women from their movement, with their ‘womyn-born-womyn’ policies.
The fourth wave of feminism, which began around 2012, however, is centered around intersectionality. Although the term ‘womxn’ has its origins in the 70s, it is now being used by intersectional feminists as a stark contrast to the TERF term ‘womyn’ in order to be inclusive of transgender women.
However, many within the transgender community, do not agree with the usage of ‘womxn’ in the context of identifying transgender women. Transgender women, are after all - women.
In her Telegraph article, columnist Diana Thomas states: “Let’s just get one thing straight. I am not spending a fortune, undergoing two major operations and three minor surgical procedures, enduring countless agonizing hours of electrolysis and laser hair removal, relinquishing my male privilege and exposing myself to possible ridicule, harassment and physical assault just to become a ‘womxn’”
On criticizing the Welcome Collection’s usage of the term ‘womxn’, Twitter user Sam Baxter asked: “Who exactly is this meant to include? Trans women call themselves women, non-binary people don’t call themselves women at all. The only thing that comes to mind is that this could be to include both ‘woman’ and ‘women’, which implies there are women who identify as plurals.”
Transgender activists fight long and hard everyday for inclusion, and for their choices and identities to be respected in a world full of governments and societal structures that are determined to tear their rights down. Some transgender women have expressed their distaste for using alternative spellings for the word ‘women’, as to identify them in that manner would imply that they are not their chosen gender - regardless of how well-intentioned the term is.
Be it ‘womxn’ or ‘women’, it is important to acknowledge preferences when it comes to gender identities, and respect the basic rights of every human being to make that choice for themselves without judgment, discrimination or oppressions. We highly recommend watching this amazing TEDx Talk by Rikki Arundel, a diversity expert with a masters degree in Gender Research at Hull University. She examines the connection between gender stereotyping, conditioning and gender identity. In her closing statement, she states, “All I want, is to be treated with dignity and respect. To be allowed to be me, without fear for my safety. So - I ask you, treat everyone with dignity and respect.” We couldn’t agree more.
In conclusion, should we all start using the term ‘womxn’ instead of ‘woman’ or not? There are fair arguments on both sides. One does not have to automatically cancel out the other.
Nita Harker, an assistant professor of sociology at Whatcom Community College in Washington and a co-organizer of the Seattle Womxn’s March, says that the element of mystery only strengthens the word’s meaning. In an Globe article, she mentions, “I actually think the challenge—particularly that it is hard to pronounce in your mind as you read it, that it forces one to stop and think, that it is not just easy and nice and recognizable—is part of the point and the draw. To me, it represents the complexity of gender.”
When you confront the word ‘womxn’ you have to confront the complexity of gender identity, its history and it’s impact (which can be significantly different from its intent). It invites much needed dialogues and introspection on topics that are not often discussed, but in dire need of that consideration.
Perhaps, therein lies its significance.
Note from the author: Any opinions expressed, are my own. I do not share the experience of any other identity except my own, nor claim to know best. This article involves researching the term ‘womxn’ that has been increasingly cropping up in media; and an effort to educate myself and share my findings with the TBD audience. I welcome more learning, diverse perspectives and opinions on these topics, as these are the discussions that will help us all collectively evolve along a path of acceptance, mutual respect and empathy.
Neha Sane is TBD’s resident foodie, a literature lover & an advocate for inclusivity in fashion & media. Fueling a drive to work with meaning & purpose, she is her happiest when interacting with new faces from our inspiring community.