I wanted to provide you with the written rationale I have created for using "wom(s)" in reference to gender-identified females and "ze/hir" as gender-inclusive, singular pronouns. I welcome any questions or critiques. -Jordana
Wom. Both the academy and public domain have long presumed the normative and inclusive nature of masculine terms. Feminist scholars and activists, in particular, have worked hard to receive acknowledgement of the patriarchal reinforcement that occurs when such terms are used. Indeed, Feminist Theory is steeped in problematizing the “taken-as-given truths” about male superordination and female subordination that are pervasive in the very language we use and remain entrenched because they are not critically examined. (Jackson, 1997) Recognizing that academic conventions (and what is considered worthy scholarship) originated from (and are maintained by) males predominantly, feminist theorists offer critiques to the status quo and suggestions for more inclusive scholarly approaches. (Diller et al., 1996; McCormick, 1994)
The extensive literature for and against using the construction “womyn” instead of “woman/women” in writing is impressive, to say the least. While some dismiss it as an inconsequential attempt by 2nd Wave Feminists to establish “womyn” as equal to and apart from “men,” it has been used widely in Feminist Theory. Both because my own political identity is aligned with many 2nd Wave positions and as I see “woman” as, indeed, a subordinate to “man,” I was initially inclined to use “womyn.” Then, I discovered Deborah Hauser’s (2005) incisive exploration of this topic and have been so compelled by her well-researched argument, that I have elected to work with her suggested “wom” instead.
Hauser (2005) traces the etymology of “woman” back, first to the German and then to the Old English “wifman,” illustrating the complicated nature of the original’s unique meaning and discrete morphemes being conflated into its current meaning:
I break "wifman" down morphologically as a compound word created from a combination of "wif" and "man". It is important to note that the original German usage "wif" referred to a woman as an adult female and not as a wife (spouse). It acquired the present meaning of a female spouse after it entered the Old English lexicon ("Wife," def.). I cannot explain why, if "wif" was the word for a female adult, it was ever combined with "man". "Wif" alone is a root morpheme complete in and of itself. However, when combined with "man" it becomes a derivational morpheme in which "wif", for female, modifies and describes "man" for human. The modern word "woman" is no longer a morphological compound but separates out as the root "man" and an affix "wo" further subordinating the female to the male since the prefix "wo" (unlike "wif") is meaningless on its own. This unnecessary welding of "wif" to "man" has irreversibly corrupted the word "woman" by binding the female prefix to the free male morpheme. "Wif", because of the semantic shift from adult female to "wife", is no longer a viable alternative as a term to describe the female without reference to the male. [emphasis mine](¶. 9)
Additionally, Hauser makes the apt point that it is unlikely anyone reads “womyn” without thinking “woman” (thus, defeating the purpose of the spelling change). She arrives at the possibility of using “wom” because it affords the “wif” morpheme’s original meaning of “adult female” and creates a truly distinct signifier. Hauser writes:
I would offer "wom" not as an abbreviated form of "woman" but as cognate with the word "womb" to entirely disassociate it from the word "man". "Wom" from "womb" would represent not just women's anatomical reproductive capabilities but would symbolically represent women as a "place of origin, development and growth"("Womb," def. 1.b.) (2005, ¶. 12)
Though I feel personal resonance with her rationale for “wom” being a cognate with “womb” (as someone who has had the biological experience of motherhood), I am even more persuaded by the second definition of “womb” she provides, as it represents an affirming inclusion of those (biological or transgender) woms who do not reproduce children. Thus, in the spirit of inclusion and experimentation, I use “wom/woms” when writing about female-identified individuals.
Ze and Hir. While it is no longer academically or stylistically correct to use “man” or male pronouns exclusively, when describing generic humans, there is not a standard and truly inclusive referential technique currently employed. Some writers do the pendulum swing of only using feminine cases, some choose to alternate gendered pronouns from example to example, some choose to put all examples in the plural, and still others use “he/she” throughout. I find all four problematic, when it comes to my academic explorations. First, replacing masculine-normative with feminine-normative terminology may empower some, yet it inevitably alienates more, because it simply replicates the same hierarchical valuation in the inverse direction. (“Othering” in any form rarely is successful in cultivating allies.) Second, because of the predominating force of gender-binary acculturation that so many of us have experienced (particularly in Western, so-called “industrialized” nations, like the U.S.), virtually everyone carries unconscious gender associations, and when reading alternating examples (e.g., one anecdote about a female-identified individual and the next about a male-identified person), there is a tendency to attach the gender-associated attributes one holds to those stories. (I specify the U.S., because there are other cultures that are not as hung up on the gender binary as many “Western” cultures seem to be.) Thirdly, putting everything into the plural is particularly tricky, if certain illustrations are really only about specific individuals. Finally, using the bifurcated convention of “he/she” is not only awkward and cumbersome in writing, but far more importantly, it epitomizes and reinforces a gender binary I categorically refuse.
One of the key exacerbating factors in the disconnect humanity experiences with so many of its relationships is the persistent influence of Modernity’s dualism. Acquiescing to the use of “he/she” perpetuates this duality, which is antithetical to the holism I am seeking. Additionally, it presumes the existence of only two genders. Thus, I elect to use the constructions, “ze” (pronounced “zee”) and “hir” (pronounced “here”), when writing about examples where the individual’s gender-identity is not required or relevant. These pronouns are widely used in the research literature on transgender issues (Boenke, 2003; Bornstein, 1997; Sosin, 2010), and they are recommended in GLSEN’s (the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network) resource materials. They represent my experimentation with gender neutrality in the written form – a potential contributor to deconstructing transphobia, as well as a challenge to taken-for-granted understandings of gendered identity.