X marks the what?

Earlier this month there was controversy after the Wellcome Collection, a museum in London, used the word ‘womxn’ in its publicity for an upcoming event. ‘Womxn’ has been around for a while in activist circles: there are various Womxn’s Marches, the Olympia YWCA in Washington State runs a ‘Womxn of Achievement’ award, and the UK organisation Her Stories recently announced an art auction to benefit refugee and migrant womxn. Nevertheless, Wellcome got so many complaints that they eventually removed the contentious X. ‘We invite challenges to our thinking’, they tweeted, ‘and we listen to our audience’. But what were they thinking when they originally chose to write ‘womxn’? And why did that choice provoke resistance?

These questions take us back to something I’ve discussed in a couple of recent posts: the contested concept of ‘inclusive language’. The letter X in ‘womxn’, also found in ‘Latinx’, ‘folx’ and the title ‘Mx’, has become an orthographic symbol of gender-inclusiveness, signalling that the term it appears in addresses or refers to people of all gender identities (though ‘womxn’ is a partial exception to that rule, in that it does exclude people who identify as men). The Olympia YWCA’s ‘Womxn of Achievement’ awards, for instance, are open to ‘two-Spirit, gender non-binary and queer folks’ as well as women. That isn’t the only thing that makes it a sign of the times: it also reflects the primacy of digital media and the written word, and the transnational or global nature of contemporary political communication. But at the same time it’s part of a longer history of attempts to change the way gender is marked linguistically, and has a complicated relationship with earlier feminist interventions.

Re-spelling words to make a political point is not a new strategy. In the 1960s and 70s leftist counter-culture types sometimes wrote ‘Amerika’ or ‘Amerikkka’ to convey the idea that the US was a fascist and racist state. And in the 1970s and 80s some feminists adopted variant spellings of ‘woman’ and ‘women’—including ‘womon’, ‘womyn’, ‘wombyn’ and ‘wimmin’—that were designed to get rid of the ‘man/men’ part, and so convey the idea that women are not just extensions or appendages of men. Sometimes this move was justified with reference to the (inaccurate) folk-belief that the word ‘woman’ was originally derived from ‘man’ in the same way the Biblical Eve was fashioned from Adam’s rib.

The Wellcome Collection explained its use of ‘womxn’ by citing a definition from Urban Dictionary which repeats these old ideas, presenting ‘womxn’ as a direct successor to the earlier feminist re-spellings:

Womxn: A spelling of “women” that is a more inclusive, progressive term that not only sheds light on the prejudice, discrimination, and institutional barriers womxn have faced, but to also show that womxn are not the extension of men (as hinted by the classic Bible story of Adam and Eve) but their own free and separate entities. More intersectional than womyn because it includes trans women and women of color.

I should probably point out here that Urban Dictionary is not a reliable source: since the people who post definitions on the site have neither the expertise nor the resources of professional lexicographers, what you get isn’t a systematically researched, evidence-based account of where words came from and how they’re used, it’s just one person’s understanding, sometimes embellished with theories they’ve come across in other, mostly equally unreliable, sources. It’s certainly not true that ‘womyn’ (let alone, as some readers inferred, ‘women’) excluded women of color; and it’s a myth that ‘woman’ was originally derived from ‘man’. But whatever its relationship to the actual historical facts, there is evidently a widespread belief that ‘womxn’ combines the anti-sexism of older variants like ‘womyn’ with the inclusiveness of newer X-forms like ‘folx’.

The letter X had its own place in the liberation movements of the 20th century. In California in 1988 I met a feminist named Laura X, who was a central figure in the long campaign to make rape in marriage illegal in the US. In 1969 she had replaced her last name with ‘X’, following the example of Malcolm X, who repudiated his original surname, ‘Little’, when he joined the Nation of Islam in the 1940s. That name, he pointed out, was part of the legacy of enslavement: it had been imposed on his paternal ancestors by the white man who owned them. Some feminists saw a parallel with the situation of women, who were also named by and for their oppressors. Even married women who declined to take their husband’s name would in most cases be keeping their father’s. In the 1980s I knew many feminists who had swapped their patriarchal surname for their mother’s first name, or some other name of their own invention. But ‘X’ makes a different kind of statement: it isn’t so much an alternative name as a placeholder for the name (and lineage, and history) that slavery or patriarchy has denied you.

If you want a placeholder, X is an obvious choice, because of its history of being used to symbolise an unknown quantity–first in algebraic equations, and later in other contexts. ‘X-rays’, for instance, were given their name by Roentgen on the basis that he did not yet know what was causing the effects he observed. ‘Brand X’ was once a common formula in advertising, where it denoted the unidentified cereal or washing powder to which the advertised product was allegedly superior. These usages had nothing to do with gender, but it isn’t hard to see how gender-inclusive X-forms rework the same idea. If X can stand for anything or anybody, then nothing and nobody is excluded by it. Its use can convey a commitment, not only to the norm of being inclusive, but also to the norm that one should not make assumptions about the identities of others. Until these are ascertained by asking the individuals concerned, they remain an unknown quantity.

The second of these norms is relatively new, but the first was also the basis for earlier feminist proposals to reform conventional usage—the difference being that ‘inclusiveness’ was conceived in terms of a two- rather than a many-gender model. It was a strategy for countering sexism by using terms that included women as well as men. And it is these earlier gender-inclusive terms which are now, at least in some quarters, being superseded by the new X-forms.

‘Latinx’, for instance, is increasingly being preferred to the dual-gender forms that Spanish-speaking feminists adopted to make women visible in a language where any reference to a group of people not exclusively female is conventionally required to be grammatically masculine. The male bias of conventional usage was addressed by creating masculine-plus-feminine forms like ‘Latinos y Latinas’ or ‘Latinos/as’. In digital-era writing another possibility was to use @ (‘Latin@s’), which looks like a combination of masculine -o with feminine -a. The newer X-form continues the move away from conventional male-centred usage, but in addition it signals a rejection of the binary model of gender which earlier departures from convention assumed. That’s also, as I noted earlier, the main difference between ‘womxn’ and earlier feminist re-spellings like ‘womyn’ and ‘wimmin’. And it helps to explain why opposition to the new X-forms is coming from two very different directions.

One kind of opposition, now as in the past, comes from social conservatives who see any deviation from conventional usage as an attack on traditional gender roles and hierarchies. A dramatic example occurred in Rio de Janeiro in 2015* after a biology teacher at one of the city’s most prestigious high schools constructed a test for his students on which the space for them to write their names was marked with the word ‘Alunx’ (an X-form of the Portuguese word for student, ‘aluno/aluna’). News of this spread through social media, and soon it was being reported in the national press. In the ensuing debate, the school was accused of ‘succumbing to the dictatorship of gay groups and feminazis’ and using ‘newspeak’ in the service of ‘the gay Marxist agenda’.

But another kind of opposition, particularly to the English re-spelling ‘womxn’, is coming not from conservatives, but from feminists. And while these two sets of critics have sometimes been presented as saying the same thing for the same reason–essentially because they’re right-wing transphobic bigots–I don’t think that claim stands up to scrutiny. The feminist opposition is certainly political, but the logic it follows belongs to the left rather than the right.

Earlier this year the blogger Sister Outrider tweeted:

I have yet to see anyone who uses the spelling “womxn” for purposes of inclusivity also use “mxn”. Significant that women become the unspeakable Other while men remain a recognised category.

If people say they write ‘womxn’ to be inclusive, then why don’t they also write ‘mxn’? What does this asymmetry imply?

One possible answer takes us back to the Urban Dictionary entry quoted earlier. If, like the older feminist re-spellings, ‘womxn’ is intended to make the point that women are not appendages of men, then putting the X into ‘men’ would make no sense: it would just reinstate the idea that ‘men/mxn’ is the root from which ‘women/womxn’ is derived. But if the main reason for using the X-form is to communicate that you’re referring not only to the people traditionally labelled ‘women’, but also to people who claim other gender identities, then there is an argument for treating ‘men’ as a parallel case. If you only give the X-treatment to women, you’re essentially replicating the Green Party’s much-criticized opposition between ‘men’ and ‘non-men’. As Caroline Criado Perez commented during the recent row,

I’m really fed up of women being just a big grab bag of anyone who isn’t a proper default human, aka a man.  Read some bloody de Beauvoir and pull your head out of your a**.

This reference to Simone de Beauvoir may answer a question I know some people asked: why would anyone get so worked up about a minor tweak to the spelling of a word? It’s not as if the X makes that word unrecognizable: it still looks more like ‘women’ than it does like anything else. For feminists influenced by Beauvoir, however, the imposition of the X-form has a deeper significance. In The Second Sex Beauvoir wrote that ‘man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being’. The replacement of ‘women’ with ‘womxn’, creating a taxonomy in which there are two classes–men, the default humans, and others, defined in relation to men–can be seen as a symbolic enactment of the same principle. Once again, women are being told they must accept others’ definitions and accommodate others’ needs. The argument about ‘womxn’, in short, is not just about competing theories of gender; it’s also about the basic political principle that every oppressed group has the right to define and name itself.

These are both issues on which feminists themselves are divided: they have different ideas about what and who feminism is for. While some remain committed to the traditional view of it as a movement for the rights, equality or liberation of women, others argue that it’s time to redefine it as a more inclusive social movement seeking justice for all oppressed people. This is not a new argument either. Since at least the 1920s, after women in Britain and the US won the right to vote, the whole history of feminism has been punctuated with cries of ‘surely we’re beyond all that essentialist stuff about women’ and ‘isn’t it time to move on?’ But as the historian Catherine Andrews observed earlier this year, these exhortations have always turned out to be premature, based on an over-optimistic assessment of women’s progress towards equality.

This latest call to ‘move on’ seems particularly ill-timed: in the past couple of years we’ve had a flood of depressing evidence that the old forms of patriarchal power have not withered away. Until they do, feminists will (still) need to talk about women and the specific ways in which they are oppressed. And the right word to use for that purpose will (still) be ‘women’. I’m not saying we don’t also need terms that address or refer to a wider constituency: for some purposes I think we do need them. But that doesn’t mean they should replace more specific terms in every context. As I said in my very first post on this blog, a movement for the liberation of women (and yes, I’m in the camp that still thinks that’s what feminism is) cannot go along with the treatment of ‘women’ as an outdated, irrelevant, unspeakable dirty word.

*My information on this case comes from the Brazilian linguist Rodrigo Borba: the English translations quoted are his, and I thank him for letting me reproduce them. (The opinions are mine and he should not be held responsible for them.)

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