Why 'woman' is not a dirty word.


These are women. Simple, right?

Hello there. My name is Mary, and I am a woman.

For a long time, I considered this to be a pretty straightforward classification. I was a woman because I had XX chromosomes. When I got a little bit older, I understood that there were other people out there who might not have those XX chromosomes, but were women-identifying, and that they were also called women.

We were all women. This made sense.

I’m not a womon, or a wom*n, or – my personal favourite – an inherently objectified womban, because those are not real words. And that is why, when I tried to write that last one, Safari promptly autocorrected it to ‘wombat’… another thing that I am not.

If all of this has gone way over your head – as it did mine – allow me to take you back a few steps.

Womyn/womon/wimmin and their cousins are terms that have been around since the 1970s. They were coined by feminists to separate ‘woman’ and ‘women’ from their etymological roots in the words ‘man’ and ‘men’. They were terms designed to free our gender from its patriarchal constraints.

One of these terms – wom*n – is undergoing a resurgence, particularly in Australian university women’s groups. The one at my uni had a vote last year to start using the asterisk.

Which is where I come in.

I’ve always considered myself to be a pretty ‘solid feminist‘, to the extent that there is any sort of mould into which 21st century feminism fits and, thus, any sort of criteria by which one can be classified as ‘solid’. I’m all for suffrage, equal pay, choice, Robyn songs… you get the picture. So, when I first saw a poster for ‘The Wom*n’s Society’ on the inside of a toilet cubicle door at my campus, I felt a little strange.

Because, despite considering myself to be a ‘solid feminist‘, I had no bloody clue what that asterisk meant. I initially assumed that wom*n must have been some special term for queer women/women of colour/transgender women/women-identifying women, or some other group with their own lived experience of feminism that this white straight girl should understand is different to her own.

A couple of Google searches later, I had learned that, no, wom*n just meant ‘women’.

And that’s when the doubt started.

I work for a women’s – wom*n’s? – website, how did I not know this?

Have people been judging me for using ‘woman’? Should I trace back through every article I’ve ever written and whack in an asterisk, just to be safe?


My initial ‘brief definitional Google’ quickly turned into a ‘thesis level research Google’. (And yes, for those particularly observant readers, all of this high-level soul searching is still occurring on a smartphone while sitting on a filthy toilet seat in a university bathroom.)

It turns out that the eradication of our gender’s second syllable falls into a greater movement of feminist language reform. As Anne Pauwels explains in her article, ‘Feminist language planning: Has it been worthwhile?’ these reforms have a variety of objectives:


Some reform initiatives primarily aim at exposing the sexist nature of ‘patriarchal’ language by causing linguistic disruptions. The strategies used to achieve linguistic disruption frequently involve experimentation and creativity with all parts of speech. The word ‘herstory’ to refer to history which is not only about men, is an example of linguistic disruption:  a morphological boundary  <history> has been reconstituted to <his> + <story> on semantic grounds.

Creating a women-centred language capable of expressing reality from a female perspective is another prominent objective of some forms of feminist language planning.  Proposed changes range from the creation of new women-centred meanings for words like ‘witch’, ‘hag’ and neologisms such as  ‘malestream’, ‘femocrat’, graphemic innovations including ‘womyn’ or ‘wimmin’ and ‘LehrerIn’ (German), to developing women-focussed discourses and even creating an entirely new language.

Creating an entirely new language to approach feminism with is fine, provided that the 51% of the world with an explicitly vested interest (and the 49% of the world who we should really be getting on board as well) know what you’re going on about.

I didn’t study modern ‘herstory’ to Year 12. I studied modern history. I learnt about some killer women in that modern history course, sure, but they were awesome women of history. ‘History’ being a normal word that people know the meaning of, and ‘herstory’ being a wanky academic word that I repeatedly threw into my essays to get more marks.

In my opinion, there is a difference between ‘herstory’ and ‘wom*n’. One seeks to provide a linguistic cue for a greater consideration of the female experience, the other seeks to provide what the groups who adopt it call an “inclusive” definition of femininity. The right definition of femininity.

And that’s where I get a bit angry.

Because, ultimately, what does calling yourself a ‘wom*n’ achieve? Not inclusion, that’s for sure. It achieves nothing other than the isolation of those who aren’t “in the know”.

Isolation from a cause that we should be trying to encourage all women to understand; feminism.

“We seriously wonder why more women don’t identify as feminists.”

Let’s pretend that I wasn’t the cocky almost-third-year who wags class to spend time in a toilet cubicle on a Google frenzy, and then spray paints her views across the Internet. Let’s pretend I was a first year. A female first year. A young woman on her first day at uni who was looking for a club to join, saw a sign for a wom*n’s group, and had no clue where that asterisk came from.  How would they feel? Unwanted? Confused? Excluded?

We seriously wonder why more women don’t identify as feminists. If we don’t let women identify as ‘women’, what hope do we have?

When we make up these words, the idea of being a feminist becomes more foreign, scary even, to those who aren’t necessarily spending their days reading peer-reviewed journal articles on feminism and semantics. Which is a pretty lame way to execute your feminism when you think about the number of women in the third world who are never taught to read.

And nothing provides greater weight to the age-old argument that “feminists hate men” quite like a big asterisk in the middle of the word. Like ‘men’ is a swear word.

Like men are the enemy.

Feminism needs to be about one thing: equality for women across the globe. The women of the world face real problems, serious problems. Problems that could have real, serious solutions if the movement’s thinkers would stop reading through the dictionary, looking for a way to be offended.

Feminism is simple.

Words that require the use of the shift key to type are not.

Have you ever thought to call yourself a wom*n?

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