Womxn? The Power of Words

Early this week, the Goldsmiths Student Union and a student society at King’s College London used ‘womxn’ rather than ‘woman’ in communications with students, citing the idea that womxn is a more inclusive term which promotes intersectionality. Their choice of words has sparked a national debate, adding fuel to the fire in the arguments about the ‘snowflake generation‘. Goldsmiths Student Union sent a statement to CNN saying that ‘no student has complained about its use’. But does lack of protest justify such a measure, especially when its impact may do more harm to the feminist cause than good?

The university groups in question are not the first to use the word. Before them, the most recent example came in October, when the Wellcome Collection museum and library used it in promotional material. The inspiration behind the word is actually decades old: second-wave feminists used a variation – ‘womyn’- in the ’70s as a way of undoing the perceived negative connection between woman and man. According to Jacob Jordan of the Evening Standard, the X has replaced the Y in the term because the original creators were associated with a cis and white faction of the community.

It is unclear how exactly ‘womxn’ is more inclusive than ‘woman’, despite the statements issued. It is even more unclear how the term promotes intersectionality. Intersectionality, within the context of Feminism, is a word that means the study of the intersections of experiences in the lives of marginalised women. For example, a non-white woman experiences both racism and sexism. A trans woman experiences transphobia and sexism in a way that a cis woman never can. It is a vitally important concept in modern Feminism, especially as previous waves have paid too little attention to anything but the white experience of sexism. But both Goldsmiths and King’s have failed to defend their statement that changing a letter in a word promotes the ideas of intersectionality, and many have been left confused by their choice and their defense of it. ‘Womxn’ neither promotes intersectionality, and nor does changing a letter change the meaning of the word.

The impact of word connotation is massively important to the cause of Feminism. For example, the association of the insult ‘pussy’ with weakness, while ‘dick’ merely infers unpleasantness is a problematic way that society has taken femininity and made it lesser. The repeated use of the word in that way subliminally drives home the message that women are weak. A more blatant example of the same phenomenon is men being called ‘ladies’ when they are failing to be strong. ‘Woman’ being used as an insult is without doubt a problem that feminists should continually address. But woman containing the word ‘man’ is a completely different issue that has more to do with how language has evolved than how we use language. Language evolution is somewhat in our control, but if feminists were to rewrite English to avoid any sexism, they would have a mighty task ahead of them. ‘Woman’ is just one word in a dictionary full of male-centric language.

There was so much backlash when the Wellcome Collection used the term that they quickly reverted to the traditional spelling. Many begged the question: who is ‘womxn’ trying to include? Labour MP Jess Phillips commented that she’d “never met a trans woman who was offended by the word ‘woman’ being used, so I’m not sure why this keeps happening”. Mx. has become common in replacing Mr. and Ms. as a gender-neutral identifier, but woman is not a gender-neutral concept, and attempting to make it so is irrational. ‘Person’ already exists as a gender-neutral term for a human being.

The argument could be made that the metaphor of removing ‘man’ from woman is more important than the actual implications of the spelling change. It symbolises the independence of woman and rejects the idea that she is part man (an idea that harks back to biblical times). This is not inherently problematic, however, the intensely public nature of the debate that has arisen as a result of the spelling change has painted feminists in a negative light. There are enough condemnations from those who oppose the ‘snowflake generation’ that can and should be protested against because they do have a real impact on the world (safe spaces, for example). Making a poorly thought out stand against a word that no one has expressed issue with makes feminists appear ridiculous, and only serves to invalidate the other more important causes they fight for.

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