For F*ck’s Sake

Sam Langford took some (aste)risks writing this article.

Typing the word “wom*n” on a phone one-handed is like a weird, thumb- specific brand of calisthenics. The upside is that once the violent finger-contortions are over, it’s one of the few words autocorrect doesn’t immediately try to butcher. This is possibly because autocorrect, like most of us, has no idea what it’s actually supposed to mean.

Until very recently, I assumed that I knew what “wom*n” meant, mostly because I supposedly am one. It was only at OWeek, when I invited some first-year friends to the Wom*n’s Comedy Night, that I realised that the meaning of an asterisk[1] is anything but immediately obvious. I ended up giving my confused friends the “as I understand it” definition, which was that the asterisk functions as a neat shorthand to quickly and visually flag the inclusion of non-binary people and trans women in whatever the word is referring to.

I have no idea how I came to that conclusion, though, because extensive research turns up nothing so clear-cut. The Wom*n’s Collective page on the SRC website welcomes “all wom*n identifying people and those that have had experience as a wom*n,” yet never tells us what a wom*n is, or if this person is different from the conventional “woman”. By contrast, the USU’s We Are Women publication talks about censoring the “essential male” from women’s experience and language, which is etymologically questionable at best.[2] It’s also not doing a whole lot to make things “more inclusive”, as the minutes from a June 2014 USU Board meeting helpfully offered, which may or may not have been plagiarised directly from the SRC. While the SRC did promise “more information and explanation about this decision at a later date”, neither they nor the USU ever got around to telling us exactly who was being included and how.

Even the most recent content is unhelpful. The Wom*n’s Collective OWeek zine this year dedicated an entire page to circular definitions of the word, essentially telling us that “wom*n” encompasses wom*n, trans and non-binary people. This is delightfully inclusive, except of the first-year who still has no idea what a “wom*n” is.

Admittedly, I haven’t yet contacted any of the people responsible for these definitions. The point is that I shouldn’t have to. Not every first year comes to university equipped with an identity politics starter kit, and very few have the time or inclination to trawl through old SRC blog posts. If we’re going to develop strain googling this term on the fly, at the very least we deserve some answers for it.

[1] A symbol traditionally used for purposes as diverse as censorship, footnoting and as a wildcard operator in database searches.

[2] Crash course: Old English used “man” as a gender neutral term for people, with pre- fixes “wer-” and “wyf-” added to refer to man and woman respectively. The heaps trendy “werman” dropped out of usage and became plain “man”, but “wyfman” lives on in its bastardised form as “women”. If that made your eyes glaze over, the point is that while we might see the word “women” as derivative of “men” now, it wasn’t always that way.