Stop Saying “Women and Femmes”

What’s wrong with saying “women and femmes”?

Nothing, if you know what that means, and that’s what you mean. It almost never is, though, and sloppy attempts at sounding inclusive does more harm than good. I know the title says STOP, but really I think that understanding what you’re saying is more important than following hard rules that you don’t understand, so maybe the rest of this will help.

I want to be inclusive! What do I replace the word “woman” with when I want to talk about feminism/hold a women-in-tech conference/hand out scholarships/recruit for my improv team?

First of all, admirable intentions. Thank you for wanting to acknowledge that gender is more than a binary. The bad news is that you have to do more work than that. This is a paradigm change, not just a cosmetic language change. You can’t just slap on “..and femmes” here and there and call it a day. Sounding inclusive is not the same as actually inclusive. There is no one single phrase that is appropriate in every context, that’s the point. To figure out which one you should use requires thought, clarity of purpose and precision of language.

Simply replacing every instance of “women” in your vocabulary with “women and femmes” is NOT “more inclusive”. This also applies to uncritical application of all the other variations on “women” that I’ve been seeing lately (female-identifying, womxn, women*, female-aligned, women and nonbinary, etc etc). You are still operating within the paradigm in which there are exactly two oppositional categories of people, exactly one of which requires whatever resource you are offering, regardless of what that resource is. You are saying that there are women, and then there are people who are …basically women? almost-women/women lite/women-but-more-complicated?

What is a “femme” anyway? Random misuse has eroded the word of its meaning. This word belongs to lesbians, queer women and trans-femmes. It doesn’t mean “feminine woman”, nor is it a more fancy way to say “woman”.

What do people really mean when they say “women and femmes”? Lots of different things, some of which can be expressed much more accurately and precisely, others of which are not coherent categories. Some things I’ve seen people use “women and femmes” to mean and why they’re bad:

  1. women = cis women, femmes = trans women. This is incredibly bad! Obviously, trans women are women. If you want a group of women, say “women”. If you want to explicitly include trans women, say “women (cis and trans)”.
  2. people who can get pregnant/breast-feed/etc. If you mean people with uteri, say that. Literally, just say what you mean! This is the most ridiculous use of “women and femmes”.
  3. feminine people who experience misogyny. Eck. Sometimes people ditch “women” altogether and just say “femmes” when they mean this. Misogyny doesn’t only happen to feminine people. Misogyny is about gender, not lipstick. Butch women experience misogyny. “Women and femmes” suggests that butch women somehow have male privilege or are exempt from misogyny, which they are not. Womanhood is not defined by femininity. Saying “femmes” instead of “women” pushes butch women out of womanhood.
  4. AFAB (assigned female at birth) people who experience misogyny. This is another misunderstanding of how misogyny works. Misogyny is about gender, not sex. Trans women experience misogyny. Some AFAB trans people experience misogyny, but that isn’t a feminine experience, and that experience doesn’t make them “women and femmes”. Trying to fight misogyny while defining womanhood based on assigned gender is called biological essentialism, and quite unproductive. If your feminism isn’t inclusive of trans women, what’s the point?
  5. Women and people who look like women to me. People also often say “women and non-binary” when they mean this, and then are very mean to people who don’t look womanly enough who show up. Remember that you cannot tell somebody’s gender by looking at them, and that a looks-based definition of womanhood is like, so 1950s. Also, if you’re gonna say “women and ___” but still only expect (people who, to you, look like) women then you just want to sound inclusive without actually including anybody, and are misgendering whoever is in the “____” by pretending they’re women.
  6. gender minorities/marginalised genders/people who experience gendered oppression, including women (cis and trans), non-binary people, trans men and others. I think that this is a good category to have for redistributing resources for gender justice, if this is really what you mean and not (5). However, I am a genderqueer person. It really irritates me when people make a thing for “women and femmes” and then tell me this is what they meant and I should go. Like… didn’t you get the memo? I’m neither a woman nor femme? Did I come out for nothing?!

It is very important to say exactly what you mean, and to do that you have to think about what you mean. Using “women and femmes” or any other terms to refer to people who are not those things is obviously very rude. Offering resources only to “women and femmes” ignores the many other groups of people who experience gendered oppression and with whom solidarity would be productive. Anti-misogynist efforts CANNOT be solely for feminine/AFAB people.

I know some people are reading this thinking, “okay but so what should I say? Just tell me what to say!!” But this really isn’t a language problem, it is an understanding problem. Words matter because of the ideas they represent. There is no shortcut!

I’m always extra concerned when people ask me, their one trans acquaintance, for help writing copy for gendered spaces. Even if you got the phrasing right, how inclusive is the space itself? Are you going to assume that everyone there is cisgender after claiming to welcome all gender minorities? Will you police who can or cannot be in the space based on appearance? Will you be centering trans voices or are trans people just supposed to observe and not take up too much space? We need actual inclusion, not just better sounding labels on the same shit. I cannot emphasise that enough.

Addendum: Some assorted bonus gripes.

  1. Please immediately banish the term “female-identifying” from your brain. Please stop it. People who identify as female ARE FEMALE, and the word for that is WOMAN. It’s okay to say woman if that’s what you mean!!!! If it is not what you mean, see above. Dear god. This one is the most transparently uncritical attempt to “sound inclusive and fancy”.
    • bonus bonus mention to “female and female-identifying”. NO. nonononono. This implies that some people are female and others merely identify as female. What? JUST. SAY. WOMAN.
    • Seriously, “woman” is a very important category to have. Say it.
  2. Please stop categorising non-binary people into “femme/female-aligned/etc” and “masc/male-aligned/etc” unless that person personally identifies as such. I’m NON-BINARY, the whole point is that I don’t fit in the binary.
  3. Hey cis women, I know menstruating is a key feature of womanhood for you. That’s good, I support that. However, period-related puns when naming women’s events? Unfortunate implications. Uteri aren’t inherently female, womanhood doesn’t reside in the uterus for everybody.
  4. Have I mentioned that sounds inclusive ≠ actually inclusive?

Women Lite (TM) is a tweet by:
Do Butches Experience Misogyny?? is a whole exhausting Thing (yes they do), I especially like this thread on the subject:
Additional reading: Sam Escobar’s article On Being Non-Binary in Female-Centric Spaces
Kat Marchán’s On the Design of Women’s Spaces
If you want to read about gender theory, how gender/misogyny works, and the pitfalls of biological essentialism, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is a good place to start

Stop Saying “Women and Femmes”

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