cn: It’s about language, so don’t complain to me about wasting time with pointless semantics, it was your choice to read onward!
“Womxn” is a term that was intended to be more inclusive of trans women, nonbinary people, and women of color. It recently entered the news when Twitch used “womxn” in a tweet. This resulted in backlash, with people accusing the term of being transphobic. It is a term that inspires, shall we say, conflicting viewpoints.
I first heard about “womxn” in the context of TERFs complaining about it. I don’t exactly watch TERFs, but my husband, you see, likes to argue with TERFs on Twitter. Yes, yes, there’s no accounting for taste. In any case, TERFs would complain endlessly about “womxn”, seemingly in disproportion to its actual use. This is common practice in TERF communities, to highlight something said somewhere by some trans person, and amplify everywhere as an example of why the TRAs (their term for trans activists, intended to parallel MRAs) are bad.
That’s not to say that “womxn” was only ever used by one trans person. The more you follow trans issues (or any topical issue really), the more you come to accept that even if you’ve never heard of an idea, it might still have currency in some community or subculture. And without knowing the original context, for all we know it may have even made a lot of sense.
“Womxn” is obscure, but its obscurity is not absolute. Prior to the Twitch incident, Wikipedia listed two events that chose to adopt “womxn”: the 2017 Womxn’s March on Seattle, and the 2018 Indigenous Womxn’s March in Portland. It is not hard to find sincere, authentic, and recent use cases with a tiny bit of google foo. Still other articles are extremely critical.
Personally, I can say that “womxn” did not make a positive first impression. I thought it was similar to “womyn”, motivated by a desire to excise the substring “men” from “women”. And “womyn” just makes me think of the Michigan Womyn’s Musical Festival, and their “womyn-born womyn” policy excluding trans women. “Womyn” is a word used by people who feel the need to excise even the vaguest symbol of maleness from their spaces, to the point of excluding women as well. “Womyn” is, in short, a TERF term. Perhaps it wasn’t always, but it is presently.
But here the TERFs were complaining about “womxn”, a virtually identical term, apparently because some trans person somewhere had used it? Sometimes what makes a word “good” or “bad” is not its meaning, but who you associate it with.
My first impression was wrong in at least one respect. Where the “y” in “womyn” is intended to remove a symbol, the “x” in “womxn” serves a different purpose. It is a wild card, allowing many substitutions to include many kinds of people. It takes a page from “Latinx”, where the x is a wild card for “a” or “o” or whatever letter would include nonbinary people.*
“But what,” you ask, “could we replace the ‘x’ with, that allows it to refer to nonbinary people?” Wom-nonbinary-n? Who knows? It’s symbolic, it doesn’t need to make sense. More to the point, as someone who is not a womxn, I might form my own impressions and opinions as I try to meaningfully engage with these ideas, but I better exercise some epistemic humility about them.
Whatever the intentions of “womxn”, the Twitch case shows that it was not ready for prime time. Some activists thought it was a good idea at the time, but they made a mistake and the word does not please who it was intended to please. Sometimes problems like these just aren’t apparent until you get a wider audience not familiar with the word’s original context.
The problem with “womxn” is that when you create a new word based on an old word, people assume you’re trying to make some kind of distinction. Womxn is intended to be more inclusive, so is the implication that “women” is not inclusive? Are trans women not women until we take away their vowels?
Of course, the intended distinction is not between exclusive “women” and inclusive “womxn”. Rather, the distinction is between implicitly inclusive “women” and explicitly and emphatically inclusive “womxn”. This kind of move is occasionally successful. For instance, the rainbow flag with brown and black stripes is intended to make explicit the inclusion of queer people of color, even though nobody really thinks the original rainbow flag is not inclusive. What makes “womxn” different from the POC rainbow flag is a bunch of contextual clues that push first impressions in one direction or another.
Another aspect that makes “womxn” contentious, is the attempt to include nonbinary people. If a nonbinary person is not a woman, is it really such a good idea to say, “you may not be a woman, but you are a womxn”? It feels a bit like trying to pin them as a woman without being upfront about it. (There’s a lot more to say about nonbinary people and their relation to women’s spaces, but I would have to spend a whole essay talking about a topic that I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to cover.)
“Womxn” strongly reminds me of another term that briefly went in and out of fashion a number of years ago: “trans*”. “Trans asterisk” or “Trans star” if we’re being Google friendly. The history of this one has mostly been lost, and we’re stuck with secondary sources. But the intention of “trans*” was to use the asterisk as a wild card, to include many people under the trans umbrella, such as transgender, transsexual, transvestite, transmasculine, etc. The problem is that this appears to imply that “trans” wasn’t inclusive to begin with. So into the garbage bin with that idea.
The point of talking about these ideas is not to paint trans people as inconsistent or capricious. Rather, trans people are human, and their communities are living breathing things with fascinating disagreements occurring all the time.
*“Latinx” is another term that draws many complaints. The biggest legitimate complaint is that “Latinx” is far more legible in English than in Spanish–and “Latine” is arguably a superior alternative. But, in English, “Latinx” is the term that has greater currency, for now. (return)