“Womxn,” a respelling of “woman,” is a more deliberate, progressive spelling rooted in Feminist and Queer language reform that proclaims that a Womxn’s identity is not “of men” but independent and powerful in and of themself and not because they are an extension of men (as hinted by the classic Bible story of Adam and Eve). It also denotes the complexities of gender and the feminine experience to intentionally include Womxn of Color and Trans Womxn. Of course, the spelling “Womxn” includes those who identify as women, including Trans women, and Women of Color, and Trans Women of Color.
Feminist language reform has been using various spellings of “woman” since the early 60s, using spellings like wimmin, womyn, wombyn, and womxn as a symbolic way to proclaim independence from men. Historically, the feminist movements have been exclusionary of Womxn of Color and Trans Womxn, so spellings like “womyn” and “wombyn” have lacked, or explicitly opposed, intersectionality. In the 70s, groups of feminists adopted the spelling of “womxn” to be intentional about their inclusion of Womxn of Color, Trans Womxn, and Femme folks, and third-wave feminism leaned into intersectionality and this spelling in the 90s.
The “x” has been used in Queer language reform since the nineties (see “folx” and “Mx.”) to be intentionally Queer, to disrupt the reader to make them think about who the writer is speaking about, and to acknowledge the variables and nuances of gender. It’s rooted in math, where the “x” is the unknown or other. Imagine the “x” in these words as a proverbial pride flag that hangs in the proverbial window of the writer’s proverbial establishment to signal to others that they are an intentionally Queer-friendly space. The “x” has also been used in other spaces to “neutralize” gendered words (see Latinx, Chicanx, among others) to disrupt patriarchal language and thinking, but also to be intentionally inclusive of individuals who find themselves outside the binary.
What we then find with the use of the spelling “Womxn” is that it is an attempt to reform language to challenge the entrenchment of language in systems of oppression like white supremacy, the patriarchy, colonialism, and Queerphobic binary “cis”tems while simultaneously signaling to marginalized communities of safe, intersectional, and inclusive spaces.
It is worth noting that language reform is symbolic and is largely created in political and social movements (like the Feminist movement, Black liberation movement, Queer liberation movement, etc.) to challenge systems of oppression. However, when the movement becomes exclusionary of others, factions are created to better serve those excluded. These movements and factions are regularly creating and modifying the symbols of the movements they’re a part of, like the respellings of “woman.” Another example of this is the Pride flag. While initially intended for the entire Queer community, it largely became a symbol for white, gay men’s rights. Consequently, what we find is the development of new flags, such as the Philadelphia Pride Flag or the Progressive Pride Flag, that were intentionally and explicitly inclusive of Communities of Color and the Trans community.
Recent online discourse has debated the appropriateness of the spelling “Womxn,” arguing that creating a separate spelling for Trans Womxn is transphobic because Trans Womxn are Womxn. Trans Womxn/women are absolutely and irrefutably Womxn/women and centering Queer Womxn and Womxn of Color is the heart of the work that we do in the SLCC Gender & Sexuality Student Resource Center (GSSRC). And for this reason, we have been intentional in our use of this language reform. The GSSRC team is almost exclusively Trans or Nonbinary, and almost exclusively Womxn and People of Color. The decisions to use this spelling have been approved by the GSSRC team since the Center first opened its doors with regular check-ins on whether to keep it or change it. In fact, in hiring the inaugural Womxn’s Coordinator, they stated in their interview, “when I saw the way Womxn was spelled in the job posting, I thought ‘finally there’s a job out there for me!’”
That’s not to say the GSSRC has been free from criticism for the choice to use this spelling. We have had criticism and concern from “both sides” saying that the Center needs to change the spelling because it’s inclusive of Trans Womxn and that it isn’t. Generally, with an explanation like what has been shared above, concerns subside, and support is given to the decision. However, the GSSRC takes these things very seriously, and talk regularly about these concerns in the Center. If the climate continues to change to a point where the above information and reasoning for using the spelling does not carry the value of its purpose against ever-changing social and online discourse, the GSSRC will reevaluate and make appropriate changes.
It is important to acknowledge that the recent online discourse against the use of the spelling, “Womxn,” has largely and almost exclusively been led by white people. “Womxn” is not, and never has been, simply a Trans word, but intentionally looks at intersectionality by signaling to Communities of Color. The feedback the GSSRC has received from Trans Womxn of Color and cis Womxn of Color alike have been in support of using this spelling. Also, when looking at online discourse by Womxn of Color, they’re generally supportive of this spelling. So, when we’re considering the debates on social mores, we need to acknowledge the voices who are often speaking the loudest – white people. This speaks directly to the etymology of the spelling, primarily that these movements are co-opted and largely serving white people and leaving out the voices of Communities of Color. Again, “Womxn” intentionally includes ALL Womxn – women, Trans women, Trans Womxn, womxn, Womxn of Color, Women of Color, Trans Women of Color, Femme folks, and more identities, all who need to be acknowledged and respected. Unfortunately, “women” doesn’t always include ALL Womxn.
The GSSRC is dedicated to intersectional work and listening to and amplifying all voices – especially those who aren’t often heard in the public square. This is about hearing all voices and concerns, weighing options and value in light of history and current public discourse, considering the impact of all who have “skin in the game,” and making decisions for that moment. The decision to continue using this spelling is the decision in this moment but we are excited to continue to host open communication about the term and consider new spellings as society advances and we make progress towards justice.
The GSSRC Team