Women, womyn, womxn: decoding the language of intersectional feminism
The intimate details of modern Western feminism and how the terms women, womyn and womxn differ.
The word ‘feminism’ has never been more ubiquitous than it is today. It’s a term which clogs up press releases, recurs throughout morning television debates, and even flashes on giant LED screens behind icons like Beyoncé – these are just the most mainstream examples.
Delve deep into modern Western feminism and you’ll find terms like ‘womyn’ and ‘womxn’, as well as others like ‘femme’ and ‘intersectionality,’ which might feel unfamiliar but are actually deeply important. With that in mind, it’s worth taking a brief look at feminist theory before breaking down in simple terms exactly what these words mean and why they’re so important.
The last few centuries have seen women worldwide fight to incrementally gain rights that were never available to them; they rallied together in the name of feminism to break down barriers and create a kinder, less hostile world for women. But then, something happened. It was around the mid-20th century that the movement began to splinter into new factions: there was mainstream feminism, which some women increasingly felt was exclusionary, and then there were more radical offshoots: black feminism, lesbian feminism, and sex-positive feminism.
A slew of influential scholars worked hard to fill the gaps in experience that had been left by mainstream feminism. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Kimberlé Crenshaw – a legal scholar and civil rights advocate – revolutionized feminist theory by coining the term ‘intersectionality’.
At the time she was studying the case of Emma DeGraffenreid, a black working wife and mother who, in 1976, sued St Louis’ General Motors Assembly Division for refusing to hire her. Like other black women who had been rejected by the company (some of whom became her co-plaintiffs), she felt that both her race and gender had factored into their refusal to give her a job.
A judge looked at her case and later dismissed it, claiming that her accusations of discrimination were unfounded: the company had both black employees and women employees, meaning that they couldn’t be guilty of discrimination.
This is where Crenshaw made a critical intervention, highlighting that the jobs given to black workers – mainly industrial jobs – were given to black men and the jobs given to women workers – mainly secretarial and office-based roles – were given to white women. To prove this point she used the analogy that DeGraffenreid was stood at an intersection between two overlapping roads: racism and sexism. Because she was positioned at that particular crossroads between two particular identities she felt the impact of both forms of oppression, and it was their combined effect that had kept her out of work.
Three decades later, Crenshaw’s groundbreaking theory has been repackaged and recycled to the extent that people now write off ‘intersectionality’ as a buzzword or form of unnecessary jargon. It’s been misused, misappropriated and manipulated by meme accounts keen to score ‘woke’ points, but its urgency cannot be understated. Nor can the necessity of queer theory, another branch of gender studies which flourished in the early ‘90s with the publication of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble.
The controversial theorist (and style icon) argued that gender is a construct created and enforced by ‘structures of power’ like the law, government and medicine. With the aim to regulate our behavior and keep us restrained within a ‘binary’ (oppositional) view of gender.
In Butler’s eyes, gender is a ‘free-floating artifice’: the limits are endless because the idea that any of us are a gender is a myth. It might sound complicated, but luckily a handful of kind souls have broken down the theory using pictures of cats (of course) and handy illustrations.
Now, let’s get to the real point: new words and variations on the term ‘woman’ have emerged. You’ve probably seen them on Tumblr and seen them scattered throughout a series of online hot takes, but it’s worth cutting through the relentless barrage of information to break them down in their simplest forms.
You know this one. Women can be used to describe trans women or cisgender (not trans) women, although there’s not much differentiating because, well, trans women are women.
It’s also crucial not to forget that the world has a thriving, often-erased intersex community. ‘Intersex’ is a term which refers to people born with biological traits which vary, in some form, from the ‘man/woman’ binary (see, even science is queer). Some are subjected to intrusive, internationally-condemned surgeries to change their biology, whereas others aren’t.
The crux is this: some people identify solely as intersex, others as intersex and trans, and others as intersex and non-binary. Others identify as intersex women. Those people also fall under the category of ‘women’.
It might look like this spelling only exists to sever ties with ‘men’, but it’s actually way more interesting than that. You might have heard of Latinx, a term which describes Latin people who identify neither as men (Latin/o) or women (Latin/a). These people fall somewhere else on the spectrum of gender identity: maybe they’re non-binary, or genderqueer. Either way, they’re not here for your patriarchal bullshit, so they use this more inclusive term instead.
Womxn is much the same: it’s a more progressive, more inclusive alternative to ‘women’ which is often used by people who might identify, for example, as non-binary and femme.
Femme also has a long history: it was initially used to define ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ lesbians, but soon fell out of favor, as it was deemed to reproduce the ‘man/woman’ binary. Since then, it’s re-emerged with a more complex definition: today it’s an identity adopted by people of all genders who identify with femininity but don’t necessarily also identify as women. ‘Butch’ is often used in an inverse way – and new terms like ‘soft butch’ and ‘futch’ (femme butch) have also emerged; coined by people whose relationship to their gender presentation is more complex.
Coined by radical feminists, this variation of ‘women’ has become synonymous with trans-exclusionary radical feminists (also known as TERFs, although some feel this is a slur. It’s not – this so-called branch of feminism excludes trans women and often relies on frequent misgendering and crude jokes.)
The origins of this term can be traced back to a radical feminist magazine in the 1970s, and it applies to “women who have survived girlhood” – in other words, not trans women.
In recent years it’s been used to violently exclude trans women from ‘womyn-born-womyn’ festivals and drive a wedge between groups of women who arguably share similar, yet slightly different experiences of discrimination.
In some ways it’s a blessing that we have new, more specific, terms to describe the experiences of various minority groups; when she developed intersectionality as a framework, Crenshaw gave us a new approach designed to understand how various categories of identity coalesce to form an individual experience.
These words are useful (and necessary, especially as our understanding of gender continues to snowball), but it’s crucial to remember the people behind the words. After all, this vocabulary exists to help us understand specific experiences of oppression; if we can’t understand the problem, we can’t fight against it.