Words are not only vital tools of communication and meaning-making, they also pack power. They foreground a world of implied understandings, and they aren’t fixed. They are “living artefacts” that shift and adapt to fill the changing needs of the communities who wield them. This is especially true of the word “woman,” which has in recent times gained a lot of attention from feminist circles working to dismantle its patriarchal associations. In short: the intentional re-spelling of the word draws attention to this work helping us reframe the conversation surrounding gender and what it means to be a woman.
Here is a brief breakdown of the word’s most common spellings and its history (or should we say herstory).
In Old English the word “man” was not gendered but implied the generic “one” as a gender-neutral term. Wyf was used to refer to a female gender, or more specifically one who is married (a wife) while wer referred to males (think of the word werewolf). (Sidenote: contrary to popular belief, Old English predates the English of Shakespeare by several centuries.)
This Old English word was one of the first alternative spellings to resurface in the 1900s, and was considered part of non-standard spelling meant to write out the word the way it was pronounced. It was often dismissed as crude or inferior as it implied a lack of education or “a foreignness.”
The traditional and most-commonly used spelling to refer to those who identify as female. In some circles it was considered exclusive of trans and non-binary women, but is now also the preferred term to include anybody who identifies with this gender.
The plural spelling of the word woman.
Old Scots way of spelling the word, this version gained steam in the 1970s, and was linked to the Dianic (female-centred) Wicca movement, but even though it was initially seen as inclusive, it excluded anyone who wasn’t a “womyn-born-womyn.” Trans activists criticized this variation saying the spelling excluded them from access to spaces and resources intended for women.
The plural variation of the word womon.
Another less-common political spelling of the word that seeks to challenge the belief in the primacy of men.
A variation that popped up in the 1970s as a way to disassociate from its masculine root and to draw on the word “womb.”
See also: 10 stigmas women still face everyday.
The plural take on Womban.
Meaning “we of the Moon” first gained steam following the publication of an astrological and lunar calendar datebook We’Moon: Gaia Rhythms for Womyn in 1981.
This spelling first surfaced during the 2016 Womxn’s March Seattle, after one of the core organizers (a non-binary person), proposed using this spelling as a way to more inclusively communicate “women and those affected by misogyny, or women-related issues.” It draws on the similarly reclaimed “Latinx,” which shifts focus away from the gendered Latina or Latino. Still, the use of this spelling is not without debate or scrutiny as demonstrated by recent backlash towards brands and organizations that moved to replace the traditional spelling of the word as it has since also been co-opted and is now also associated with transphobia. Critics point that a separate word shouldn’t be required to include those who are already women anyway, trans or otherwise.
As a result some still very much prefer the most common spelling, others further don’t want any gendered pronouns; attitudes are also shifting towards simply focusing on being decent human beings. Period.