Why the Popular Phrase “Women and Femmes” Makes No Sense

An art treatment studying the phrase "women and femmes."
Photo illustration by Slate.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

If you have been on the internet recently, then you’ve likely seen the phrase “women and femmes” floating around. Maybe you read it in this article from Everyday Feminism concerning emotional labor or maybe in this takedown of white feminism from Wear Your Voice. You’ve almost certainly seen it pop up on your Twitter or Facebook feeds, at least if you’re someone who has links to queer and/or feminist communities. While it might seem innocuous, the phrase has been irritating me for the last two years or so. Why? Because it is, to put it lightly, incoherent nonsense.

Before we go into what’s wrong with “women and femmes” as a linguistic device, maybe we should clear up what femme means (for those who don’t know their Ellen Page from Ellen DeGeneres). Femme is a term that comes from working-class lesbian culture. It was originally used to describe lesbians who were feminine in their appearance and clothing, and sat in opposition to butch lesbians, who were masculine in their appearance and clothing. (If you’re interested in reading more about the height of butch/femme culture then I suggest reading Leslie Feinberg’s seminal novel Stone Butch Blues.) Femme was about femininity released from the chains of obligation to men and their gazes. It was a defiant and knowing femininity, performed for oneself and for other women, rather than in service of the heteronormative status quo, which maintained that women were naturally feminine, men naturally masculine, and that the only acceptable desire was between these two kinds of people.

However, modern day usage of femme is far more expansive: Now it’s used throughout the queer community by people of any gender and sexuality as a label to name their intentional, feminine gender expression. (You can read a little more about how some queer people define their femme-ness in these pieces from Autostraddle and Vice.) It is important to recognize that people who are both straight and cisgender (i.e. not transgender) wouldn’t really claim a femme identity, since being feminine is not the same as being femme. For example, when cisgender straight women have a feminine gender expression it’s simply “the norm,” not an intentional reclamation of femininity from the clutches of heteronormativity. Femme is an identity that queer people choose—it is not simply a description of a person’s femininity.

So, now, what’s the problem with “women and femmes”?

First, the most glaring issue is that women and femmes belong to two different categories of identity. Woman is a description of one’s gender identity, whereas femme is a description of one’s gender expression. Someone can be a femme woman or a femme nonbinary person. But someone cannot just be a femme. Femme is an add-on, a further explanation of one’s gendered existence in the world. It doesn’t make any sense to discuss women and femmes as a coherent and cogent category because they’re expressions of fundamentally different principles. There is no situation I can think of in which “women and femmes” can be usefully employed to refer to a class of people who inherently share something specific by way of gendered experience.

For instance, take a recent tweet that noted that the author wants “to become a doula and provide free and low cost doula services for WFOC (women and femmes of color).” [Update: The tweet has since been deleted.]

Hold the phone, what does this even mean? Doulas are required by people who can get pregnant, who of course are primarily—but not just!—cisgender women. Some transgender men and assigned-female-at-birth nonbinary people also give birth. If this person wanted to be inclusive and trans-aware, then they should have stated this. What they should not have done is trotted out our friend “women and femmes.” Femme cannot tell you anything about someone’s biology. Femme is not a class of people who share a common oppression or a common biology, because femmes can, in the contemporary usage, be of any gender. Assigned-male-at-birth nonbinary femmes do not need doulas because they cannot give birth. Using femmes here in addition to women is nonsensical. One’s gender expression has nothing at all to do with health care needs. This is a point at which one needs to point towards bodies in order to convey who is being discussed. “Women and femmes” has here been employed in order to seem inclusive, but it has sorely missed the mark.

A further problem with “women and femmes” is the way in which it suggests that womanhood and femininity are concurrent. You will never find someone referring to “men and butches,” because it is ridiculous to assume that manhood and masculine lesbian womanhood share common ground. However, when people invoke “women and femmes,” that is precisely what they are suggesting. Masculinity is not automatically a privilege! Butch lesbian women are not an oppressive class of people because of their masculinity. Performing masculinity as a woman is a deviance from “proper” gendered behavior and as such is a dangerous transgression for a woman to make. “Women and femmes” suggests that women are discernible by (and solely oppressed for) being feminine. This is a gross distortion of the way in which gendered oppression operates.

It is also worth considering who is left behind when feminists deploy “women and femmes.” If feminism is going to be concerned about the struggles of people beyond women, then it doesn’t make sense to only focus on people who identify as femme. Nonbinary people (whether assigned male or female at birth) who don’t identify as femme and transmasculine people are also in need of feminist intervention and attention. These people are not cisgender men, and as such, they are not at the top of the gender hierarchy and also require access to safer space and the help of gender liberation movements. Take, for instance, this “feminist fight club,” which professes to be a place for “women and femme-identifying people” to use wrestling to take out their rage at the right-wing government currently in power in England. How does this make sense? Did Theresa May pass a law that magically made oppression melt away for gendered minorities who don’t identify as femmes? I must have missed that.

The continual use of “women and femmes” ultimately risks flattening the two terms into each other—a merging I’ve already begun to notice over the past few years. When people write that it is femmes who suffer from misogyny, they are erasing vast swaths of women and other people who are hurt by our male-dominated society. Femme is not a more inclusive way of saying women; it is its own identity with its own history. It boils my blood to see it being in used in ways which narrow our focus onto femininity and femininity alone as the source of women’s oppression.

Using language in a precise and intentional way is essential, especially when discussing topics fraught with political tension. Being aware of what we’re indicating through our language choice is necessary for a discourse that is respectful and effective—two things that “women and femmes” absolutely is not.

Kesiena Boom is a black lesbian feminist writer and sociologist. Her work mainly centers on issues of sex, sexuality, race and gender.