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From women, to womyn, to women


Centuries from now, when the definitive history of the feminist movement is written, a small footnote will have been earned by the University of Waterloo.


As reported last week, the school’s student council voted 38-17 to rename Waterloo’s “Womyn’s Centre,” removing the spurious “y” from “womyn” and replacing it with the more conventional “e.” It’s just one vowel at one university. But the change symbolizes how radically feminism has evolved since its militant heyday.

The term “womyn” was invented in the 1970s by activists who objected to the fairer sex (can I say that?) being etymologically tagged as a mere variant on the default male prototype. Some imagined the term “woman” would fade from common language entirely, like “Negro,” “Papist” or “Mohammedan.” But the only people who picked up on the new term were the sort of post-grad gender warriors who set the rules at women’s centres. For the rest of us, “womyn” joined “phallocentric” and “herstory” in the eyeball-rolling PC lexicon, suitable only for anti-feminist mockery. Now that women’s rights have become firmly established in our society (in large part thanks to all those warriors everyone mocks), even campus feminists are shedding their jargon and reverting to the Queen’s English.

Words like womyn belong to an angrier age. A generation ago, most of us believed (or, at least, were supposed to believe) that men and women were wired the same way. And so every male-female discrepancy observed in the labour market was automatically taken as a symptom of employer bigotry. This conceit bequeathed all sorts of bad policy ideas that remain with us — pay equity, gender quotas, language-manglers like “chairpersons” and “fishers” — but no one really believes the underlying assumption any more. In the 1980s and 1990s, new research demonstrated just how fundamental were the differences between male and female brain structures. At the same time, the first generation of female high-achievers began to tell their war stories of corner-office burnout and missed children’s birthday parties. The burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology was there to connect the dots with an explanation culled from the African savanna: The average female brain simply is programmed to get less satisfaction from the hunt, and more from the hearth, than its male equivalent.

By the time I began university in the late 1980s, feminists were admitting that women were different, but only insofar as they exhibited superior “ways of knowing” — to quote the title of a famous 1986 book. By this theory, women are cast as empathic, collegial and intuitive; while men (and the societies created in their image) are domineering, individualistic and impersonal. This approach had the advantage of reinventing old-fashioned female stereotypes as modern sociological virtues. But from a policy perspective, it was a flop: Merciless competition, rigid hierarchies and elbows-up careerism are all fundamental to our economic and political systems. And so efforts to “feminize” our society wholesale are doomed. As Laura Miller wrote in a widely circulated 1997 essay describing her experience at a feminist co-operative: “Trying to accomplish the necessary, nuts-and-bolts tasks of [a retail] operation, while appeasing those staff who demanded that the company emulate this ‘connected’ vision of feminism felt like playing tennis underwater.”

In the last two decades, feminism has fractured into breakaway strains, ranging from homemaking traditionalism to the shallow, man-chasing escapism celebrated by Sex in the City. There is even a surviving old-school camp, currently led by philosophy professor Linda Hirshman, who has just written a creepy book urging women to have just one child lest diaper-changing interfere with corporate ladder-climbing. (By her lights, societal extinction apparently is a more attractive option than stay-at-home motherhood.)

In magazines and on the Internet, there is ongoing debate about which feminism is the authentic variety. But from my own experience, few women care much about these dueling dogmatists. When my wife’s 30-something friends get together, I hear very little talk about glass ceilings and “ways of knowing,” and lots of strategizing about how to negotiate year-long maternity leaves and four-day work weeks — alongside shop talk about potty training, breast-feeding, lazy husbands and nanny management.

In contrast to the previous generation of working women, who (justly) felt that they couldn’t concede anything to a sexist patriarchy, many working women now freely admit they have different priorities than their workaholic husbands. As a result, the bristle and dogma I remember from my university days has given way to pragmatism. Women can focus on running their lives, rather than on what Hirshman or some other know-it-all thinks is the correct way to be womyn. From my admittedly phallocentric point of view, that’s a welcome development.



Jonathan Kay "From women, to womyn, to women." National Post, (Canada) 21 November, 2006.

Reprinted with permission of the author, Jonathan Kay, and the National Post.

The Author

Jonathan Kay is Comment Pages Editor of the National Post newspaper.  In addition, he is a columnist for the National Post op-ed page, and a regular contributor to Commentary magazine and the New York Post.  His free-lance articles have appeared in Harper's, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and various other publications.  In April, 2002, he was awarded Canada's National Newspaper Award for Critical Writing.  In June, 2004, he was awarded a National Newspaper Award for Editorial Writing.

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