But even “womxn” has its haters. In October, a London museum and library called Wellcome Collection sent out a tweet that included the word. In response, hundreds of followers, including many women, tweeted back with complaints. “I’ll be a womxn when men become mxn,” one user tweeted angrily. The Wellcome Collection said at first that it had used the word to show that its space welcomes diverse perspectives, but subsequently issued an apology.
It’s common for people to get upset about change when it comes to language, because speakers often get attached to the words they use, said Lera Boroditsky, an associate professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego. When she studied speakers whose native languages used gendered nouns (Spanish, French, German and Russian are examples), she found that this influenced the way people thought about the world, even if they weren’t aware of it.
“My native German-speaking research assistant was skeptical about the idea,” Dr. Boroditsky said. “She didn’t think that grammatical gender would change the way people thought. Then we started talking about the word ‘giraffe,’ which is masculine in my native Russian but feminine in German. I said, ‘It makes sense for ‘giraffe’ to be masculine, they’re so tall.’ Then she started arguing, ‘You can’t think of a giraffe as masculine, they have such long eyelashes!’”
Dr. Boroditsky wasn’t surprised at the many experimental modifications to “women.” “It could be that a lot of people have never parsed out that ‘women’ equals ‘wo’ plus ‘man,’ but it also could also be that many people don’t notice it,” she said.
But many feminists have noticed. Megan Conway and Aliya Cutler remedially named their Beacon, N.Y., business and community space Wyld Womyn. “There was a sense of inclusivity to it,” Ms. Cutler said. “To us, that term includes all cis and trans women and any other person who identifies as a woman.”
Nisha Moodley, a women’s leadership coach in Mill Valley, Calif., started incorporating “womxn” on social media and event invitations to make it clear that trans women were included in the women’s events she hosts. “The fact that there was an alternative spelling made me aware that some women have been feeling excluded,” she said.