Today I Learnt: Womxn And Womyn Mean Two Different Things
If you’re a social media addict like I am, chances are that you must have also come across words like ‘womyn’ and ‘womxn’. And you too, like me, must have stopped to wonder what these words are all about. It was only recently that I unravelled the mystery behind such alternate spellings. And no, they are not typos. In fact, in simple language ‘womyn’ and ‘womxn’ are two of the most commonly used substitutes to avoid using the suffix ‘-men’ at the end of the term ‘women’.
“Well, that’s a bit too much,” you might think. The truth is that by avoiding the “-men” or “-man” suffixes, people who use alternate spellings of the word ‘women’ aim to achieve female independence from patriarchal linguistic norms. “But the change in spelling is unnecessary given that they’re not officially part of the English language,” you might say. However, people who use the terms argue that the English language constantly fluctuates with standardised dictionaries adding new words constantly. For example, the word ‘selfie’ was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2013 — just one example of how new words have come into existence constantly. So let’s go back in history and look at these two words. Because ultimately, the development of terms like ‘womxn’ and ‘womyn’ symbolise a unique turn in how the second-wave feminism has progressed since its explosion in the 1970s.
The History Of ‘Womyn’
The alternative spelling ‘womyn’ first appeared in a 1975 issue of Lesbian Connection magazine that announced the Wolf Creek Womyn’s Festival, or today’s WoLF Fest, the radical feminist festival. This gathering occurred from 1976-2015, after which founder and organiser Lisa Vogel announced that the cycle of life for the festival had run its course. This alternative spelling of the word was introduced as a way to avoid the suffix ‘man,’ in protest of the biblical concept that women are simply subsets of men. It was meant to be a progressive term to demonstrate that ‘womyn’ are their own free, separate and individual entities.
But even though the goal was to be more inclusive, the festival came under scrutiny from the LGBTQ community for its policy that attendants must be “womyn-born-womyn,” which explicitly excluded transgender women. Hence, the word ‘womyn’ came about to be seen as a clean white, liberal-feminist concept. It became associated with the vein of feminism that did not view trans women as women because they were not born with female genitalia. Today the word is frequently bracketed with another word you might have seen floating around: TERF, i.e. a trans-exclusionary radical feminist.
History Of ‘Womxn’
Post the outrage against the word ‘womyn’, the term ‘womxn’ was created to broaden the scope of womanhood by including ‘womxn-of-color’, ‘trans-womxn’ and other ‘womxn-identified’ groups. Dictionary.com, which added womxn to its dictionary in 2019, defines it as “a woman (used, especially in intersectional feminism, as an alternative spelling to avoid the suggestion of sexism perceived in the sequences m-a-n and m-e-n, and to be inclusive of trans and nonbinary women)” The Boston Globe calls the term “a powerful, increasingly popular label, encompassing a broader range of gender identities than ‘woman’—or even older feminist terms such as ‘womyn’ … a nontraditional spelling for people whose gender identity doesn’t fit in the traditional boxes.”
To understand it better, consider this example: You might have probably seen terms like ‘Latinx’ floating around in recent years. As the Boston Globe explains, the x communicates that the person identifies neither as a man, or Latin, nor as a woman, or Latina. Instead, this x allows space for individuals who identify as genderqueer, genderfluid, gender non-conforming, or non-binary. The ‘x’ in ‘womxn’ works the same way, and as such, opens up the free-human-woman concept to include trans women.
Both these words are not easy to pronounce, and neither is there any singular guide available which can explain their pronunciations. And it is perhaps this element of mystery which additionally strengthens the words’ meaning. These words are so hard to pronounce in the mind as one reads it, that it forces them to stop and think. That they are not just easy and nice and recognisable is part of the point that the words are trying to make— since the experiences of the marginalised genders are itself not that easy. The words represent the complexity of gender, ‘womxn’ more than ‘womyn’, and at the end of the day, it depends on people what they want to use and identify themselves as. On our behalf, we should be willing to take that extra step to respect other people and their choices, value different traditions and understand the power of language and spelling.
Dyuti Gupta is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.