The town administrator of Wakefield recently offered what might have seemed a modest proposal to a board of selectmen comprising five men and two women: Why not adopt a name that doesn’t imply they’re all male?
The women, while noting it wasn’t their idea, embraced the proposal.
But the men voiced some reservations.
Selectman Anthony Longo said they should let the people decide. Selectman Edward F. Dombroski Jr. worried about the process. And Selectman Peter J. May defended tradition, saying the town’s elected leaders had been called “selectmen” since 1625.
“It is a big change, I think,” May said.
It fell to Mehreen Butt, the woman most recently elected selectman, to state the obvious.
“Women didn’t have the right to vote in 1625,” she said. “We weren’t allowed to serve.”
Change is hard.
After the gender wars of the 2016 election cycle, women are signing up in large numbers to run for local offices where they are still dramatically outnumbered.
Yet in many municipalities where women are already governing, their title is conspicuously inaccurate — and proposals for updates are often greeted with paeans to tradition or howls decrying “political correctness.” In Wakefield, the proposal unleashed furious fights on Facebook, with residents pointing out that even “human” includes the three offending letters of the patriarchy. (“Where does the PC stop? Hu-Person?” one woman wrote.)
At a recent debate at the Wakefield Board of Selectmen’s meeting — with the men on one side of the table batting technicalities at the women on the other — one could watch the women’s tepid support turning white-hot as both sides dug in. A proposal presented as a semantic no-brainer by a male town employee suddenly began to sound like a Very Big Deal.
Why, the selectmen mused, should they spend their time debating this?
. . .
A selectman is a regional anachronism — a member of a board of town officers elected to run government affairs. Alderman, old English for “elder” and “man,” is less specific to New England — Chicago has aldermen, too — and is retained by a trio of Massachusetts cities: Woburn, Somerville, and Melrose.
Aldermen and selectmen are no longer presumed to be male, and many women embrace the titles as a point of pride, considering them gender-indifferent honoraria.
“My daughter is a defenseman on her hockey team,” Newton Alderman Victoria L. Danberg said when her board considered changing its name in 2014, “and no one would think of calling her a defensewoman.”
Monica C. Medeiros is content being a Melrose alderman-at-large though she’s neither old, at 42, nor a man. Such traditions, she believes, help Melrose preserve its unique sense of self — a bedroom community that happens to be a city, which blossomed during the Victorian era and still cherishes its gaslights.
“We’re a little different. And we celebrate our Victorian-ness,” said Medeiros, who opposed a name change in October, leaving the board deadlocked as “aldermen.”
But her colleague who proposed the change, Melrose Alderman Jennifer Lemmerman, cites the argument that persuaded Newton’s aldermen to become city councilors in 2015: “If the traditional term had been ‘alderwoman,’ would I be sitting here right now next to Alderwoman Joe Smith?”
Lemmerman is trying again to change her board’s name through a formal charter review, and Medeiros is willing to consider it — but only if there are other meaningful adjustments to the city charter, too.
“It just doesn’t matter that much. It’s just a name,” Medeiros said. “I know there certainly are biases against women out there. Any woman has felt this in her life. But sometimes it’s about how much we let it stop us or not. We could say that the title ‘alderman’ is part of our history. But it’s ‘his story.’ Not hers.”
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The towns wrestling with these changes, of course, remain the outliers. In many areas, the issue is moot. Neither Reading nor Lynnfield, Wakefield’s neighbors, has a single woman on its board of selectmen. All told, 97 municipalities have no women elected to executive positions, according to the Blue Lab, a student-run political incubator that analyzed all 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts. Across the state, 430 women hold office as mayors, city councilors, aldermen or selectmen, the Blue Lab found — just 24 percent of the 1,781 elected positions available.
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In Wakefield, a name change to select board was introduced by Town Administrator Stephen Maio, in an e-mail that suggested it was a done deal and “long overdue.” A day later, he sent another message, apologizing for jumping the gun, and clarifying that the name change was merely up for discussion. All the selectmen seemed to tiptoe into the debate at that week’s meeting.
“I’m not stomping my feminist flag to do it,” said Ann McGonigle Santos, who added she has been calling herself a selectman for years and, yes, sometimes it sounded strange. But she did not want to make it a big issue, noting, “there are bigger fish to fry for women in public office.”
Maio noted that 30 other Massachusetts communities have dropped their “boards of selectmen” for “select boards.” And he said Wakefield’s other town bodies don’t make such assumptions about gender. (Think “board of health” and “school committee.”)
Town Counsel Thomas Mullen said the board could informally change its name anytime, but to do so legally would require a change of the town charter. That requires either a Town Meeting vote, adopted by voters at the ballot, or a Town Meeting vote and legislative approval.
But he downplayed the legislative option and suggested they seek a townwide vote either way. As the selectmen began to dwell on getting input from their constituents, the women began to bristle: Couldn’t the board at least make its recommendation clear to the public? Start calling themselves a new name while the lengthy charter review process begins? Yes, Town Meeting members should be part of the decision-making process, but does the entire electorate get to weigh in?
“I’d just like to say I’m a little curious about it going to the general ballot,” said Butt, the first Muslim-American woman elected to a board of selectmen in Massachusetts. “It is the only gender-specific board or commission that we have in town.”
Surely, if they decided their own name was gender-biased, they wouldn’t let the people veto their judgment and insist on keeping it?
“I’m not entertaining that opinion,” Santos said.
Longo was sheepish but adamant: “If the town votes to keep selectmen,” he said, “then we stay selectmen.”
May, the vice chairman, defended the word “selectman,” likening it to “fireman” and “policeman.”
“I don’t personally think it’s gender biased. I think it’s actually just a term,” May said. “It happens to be M-A-N. So is woman,” he noted. “M-A-N is on there.”
“Peter,” Butt asked, “Are you suggesting we change it to ‘board of women’? ‘Board of selectwomen?’”
Butt told him that gender-specific terms for public servants had already been abandoned in favor of “firefighters” and “police officers.”
Dombrowski expressed deep discomfort with the process, saying the seven members of the Board of Selectmen were not “in a position to rename ourselves.”
“I think it’s a question for the town: What do you want to call the body that governs your town?” he said.
Ultimately, Wakefield postponed a decision, in favor of a charter review and brainstorming for names. Nobody seemed to like “select board,” which Longo said afterward “has a sense of superiority.”
In Newton, where the aldermen became city councilors, the change created no bureaucratic headaches, said Newton City Clerk David A. Olson.
The biggest problem? People keep calling each other aldermen.
“Old habits die hard,” he wrote in an e-mail.