Of ‘Womxn, ‘Womyn’ And ‘Women’: Why You Need To Listen To What Transfeminism Is Saying
First came J.K. Rowling, erstwhile queen-who-could-dono-wrong (except revise her books to the press a hundred times since their release) — who was fumbling over inanities such as wimpund and wumben. While insisting on her empathy for and solidarity with transwomen, she later wrote, “… When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman – and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones – then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.”
Months later, in the build-up to Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, floated more words, not as new — entwined with historical connotations — womxn, womyn. To the eye that has never seen either before, they appeared as part of social media campaigns, as slapdash marketing strategies to capitalise on a March of opportunity. Streaming platform Twitch (popular among gamers) announced its decision to abandon women for womxn, later deleting its tweet amidst severe backlash about Twitch’s use of “transphobic language”. The platform apologised, announcing its intent to have wanted to be more inclusive, while acknowledging it had inadvertently done the opposite. So, where do Jo and Twitch align, and what do their uses of the various spellings of women have to do with feminism today? Let’s unpack.
Where did womxn and womyn come from – and which came first? Womyn. A battleground between feminists and transfeminists was drawn up as early as the 1970s, when the Lesbian Organization of Toronto voted to become womyn-born-womyn-only and wrote, among other things that “A woman’s voice was almost never heard as a woman’s voice. It was always filtered through men’s voices. So here a guy comes along saying, ‘I’m going to be a girl now and speak for girls.’ And we thought, ‘No you’re not.’” Womyn was the term radical feminists began to use to remove “man”, and, therefore, all patriarchal implications of the identity of women being somehow subsumed by men because of sexist language. While this was a noble idea, however, the term soon reached a trans-exclusionary crescendo when, in the 1990s, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival actually ejected a transgender woman from its premises. The festival later toned down its stance to declare it would allow post-operative transwomen – but this was loudly decried as being classist and unfair, since many transwomen cannot afford the surgery to physically transition.
This particular category of F FOR F E M I N ISM radical feminists who began to exclude transwomen from feminism itself began to be called “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists” or TERFs – a term you may have seen thrown around in the flurry of diatribes hurled at Rowling after her twitter debacle.
So, historically, do all radical feminists believe transwomen cannot be women? Not at all. Trans-inclusive radical feminists argue (as early as 1974, in fact, by Andrea Dworkin) that transgender people might be able to subvert traditional-gendered, patriarchal roles.
Which, I paraphrase – isn’t it the very crux of all feminisms (Marxist, liberal, radical, intersectional)? Here’s the deal: if the very reason feminism exists and stands tall and proud is to demand equality for all, and if it believes that equality can be achieved by doing away with the notion that “biology determines your destiny”, then don’t transwomen stand vehemently for that very idea?
And what of womxn — and its supposed trans-inclusiveness? In the 2010s, fed up with what they felt was white feministic control over the narrative, certain black feminists and feminists of colour (among others) embraced the term “womxn” – where, the X, they believed, would stand for all women. The women previously neglected. Relegated. Battle-denied.
This term, many feminists believed, would also be more inclusive of transwomen than the previous linguistic disgrace, womyn. But if the anguished opposition to Twitch’s social-media-coopting of the word in any indication, “womxn” is not a one-size-fits-all. Most dissidents argued that by spelling women as womxn to include transwomen, one was actually ending up doing the opposite, excluding them by telling people, “look, here’s a new letter in an old word that you’ve never seen before. It’s supposed to be used mainly for those who are attempting entry into womanhood and, like the x that one doesn’t know to pronounce, stick out like a sore thumb”.
“Womxn”, numerous transwomen argued, only widens the gap between transwomen and women-born-as-women further by telling people they’re someone apart, separate from women, potentially inciting even more transphobia and debarment. This is particularly dangerous in societies where transwomen already face severe physical and sexual violence, simply on the basis of transphobic minds refusing to denote them a place outside society’s binary.
So, here’s what we could do instead: Ask a transwoman whether they want to be called a womxn or womyn. Because you know what’s common between the linguistic wrangling of yesterday and today? They don’t really bother asking the person whose assignative properties they’d rather debate among themselves. If you’re a transwoman who is empowered by the terms womxn or womyn, use both/either, because you get to choose for you. For the non-trans, sufficient opposition has had to now pack up the bags on either/both.