Asia Key, The Black Bear – On Tuesday, March 21, Multicultural Programs sponsored a Lunch and Learn event in the Multicultural Resource Center Annex to discuss intersectionality in womanhood by spelling ‘woman’ in different ways.
The discussion was led by Yvania Garcia-Pusateri, an executive director of Multicultural Programs. The first thing she did was ask for the group of 10 women to introduce themselves and say their preferred gender pronouns.
“We introduce our gender pronouns as a way to normalize gender identity,” Garcia-Pusateri said. “It’s not always the traditional binaries of ‘she, her, hers.’ Being a woman is very fluid. It’s a way to kind of welcome all people that come into our space to feel included, but also know that their identities are acknowledged. In this space we try to normalize that.”
After passing out a sheet of terms, Garcia-Pusateri explained what it meant to be a “woman,” “womyn,” or a “womxn.”
According to the terminology handout, a woman is an adult female human being.
The alternative spelling “womyn” first appeared in print in 1976 at the first Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. This gathering occurred annually from 1976-2015, when founder and organizer Lisa Vogel announced that the cycle of life for the festival had run its course via a Facebook post.
This alternative spelling was introduced as a way to avoid the suffix ‘man,’ in protest of the biblical concept that women are simply subsets of men. It is meant to be a progressive term to demonstrate that “womyn” are their own free and separate entities.
Though the goal was to be more inclusive, Michigan’s Womyn’s Music Festival came under scrutiny from the LGBTQ community for its policy that attendants must be “womyn-born-womyn,” which explicitly excludes transgender women.
“Womyn,” according to the handout, is considered a white, liberal-feminist concept and, thus, the term “womxn” was created to broaden the scope of womanhood by including “womxn-of-color,” “trans-womxn” and other “womxn-identified” groups.
Garcia-Pusateri said that she uses the term “womxn” to define herself, but it is up to each individual to decide what term they will align themselves with based on their research and experiences.
“For a lot of people, this is all brand new for them,” Garcia-Pusateri said. “Being a woman has been their experience, whatever that entails. The different spellings makes you ask, ‘What does that mean about inclusivity?’ ‘What does that mean in a historical context?’ ‘If you use ‘womyn,’ what does that mean?’ ‘If you use ‘womxn,’ what does that mean?’”
As a straight, Latina woman, Garcia-Pusateri writes from that perspective. She uses the Even though she wants to be inclusive of other women, she would have to be intentional about the language she uses, she said.
“I need to own my privilege when I’m in this space, talking about this experience, and then reference other people and give space to those people who have those realities,” Garcia-Pusateri said.
The discussion turned, then, to address the first and second waves of feminism.
The first wave of feminism is commonly referred to as the nineteenth and twentieth century feminist activity in the United States and the United Kingdom; the movement’s focus was the promotion of equal contract and property rights for women, the opposition to chattel marriage, and gaining political power through woman’s suffrage.
The second wave occurred from the 60s to the 80s. According to the Gender and Water in Central Asia Network, second-wave American feminists saw “women’s cultural and political inequalities as inextricably linked and encouraged women to understand aspects of their personal lives as deeply politicized and as reflecting sexist power structures.”
A third wave beginning in the 1900s is also identified in this network. It began as a response to perceived failures in the initiatives and movements of the first wave. Third-wave feminism seeks to challenge or avoid what it deems the second-wave’s essentialist definitions of femininity, that over-emphasize the experiences of upper middle-class white women.
It is here that the feminist movement begins to pay more attention to gender and sexuality.
Hiba Abdeljalil, a graduate student studying student affairs in higher education, said the meaning of feminism changes within each wave. Especially with this third-wave of feminism, she said it focuses more on what feminism means to individuals.
“It’s more intersectional and more individualized,” Abdeljalil said. “What makes it younger is (that) it’s focusing more on individuality and what it means to be a feminist within that individual. So for some people it does have intersecting identities, and for others, it’s just white women.”
“Womyn” and “womxn” are not the only alternative spellings. There are also terms like “womban,” “wimmin” and “femme,” which is an expression of identity that both men and women adopt.
With so many ways to identify, the common ground must be humanity, Garcia-Pusateri said.
“At the end of the day, we’re human and we identify whatever way,” Garcia-Pusateri said. “Humans are meant to live in community and that’s how we function. For us to really understand each other, we must be okay with not knowing, but then taking the extra step of learning.”
Garcia-Pusateri said that taking the extra step to learn, even if you’ve said something offensive unintentionally, should be the bottom line.
“You can say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that, that’s not my intention,’ but owning that impact of what you did is the first step,” Garcia-Pusateri said. “We don’t mean to be negative, but then we don’t take ownership of what the impact was. (We should be) taking the extra step to really understand other people, understand different traditions and understanding the power of language and spelling.”
Millicent Bean, assistant hall director of Freudenberger House, said it was the responsibility of those women in attendance to go out and share this information because not everyone has the same access.
“When you think about it, it’s a privilege to have access to this information and be able to share with people who weren’t able to be here or don’t have the time to sit behind a computer and research all of this on their own because they wouldn’t even know in the first place,” Bean said.