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In Massachusetts, ‘aldermen’ are nearly extinct

Melrose Alderman Monica Medeiros orginially voted against changing her title. But this year she co-sponsored a measure to change the Melrose board’s name to City Council.
Melrose Alderman Monica Medeiros orginially voted against changing her title. But this year she co-sponsored a measure to change the Melrose board’s name to City Council.Handout

Three years ago, Melrose Alderman Monica Medeiros voted against changing her title, brushing aside assertions that it was anachronistic, not to mention ill-suited to a 40-something female.

The name — old English for “elder” and “man” — had a small-town feel, she said, befitting the Victorian charm of her community, which is a city, though it doesn’t feel like one.

But this year, after recognizing just how unique Melrose is — as the only Massachusetts city that still has a board of aldermen — she dropped her resistance and cosponsored a measure to change the board’s name to City Council.

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“Maybe it’s just time to let it go,” Medeiros said.

The Melrose Board of Aldermen voted itself out of existence this spring, the latest in a rapidly accelerating trend that turned the Somerville Board of Aldermen to a City Council, and turned boards of selectmen in places as varied as Wellfleet, Leicester, Otis, Reading, and Plymouth into “select boards.”

When the charter change is finalized for Melrose — a move now awaiting approval by the state Legislature and the governor — there will be no “board of aldermen” left in Massachusetts. The last aldermen standing will be in Woburn, where the nine members of the City Council still go by the individual title of alderman due to a longstanding quirk of the city charter. Three of them are women.

Since 2017, at least 31 Massachusetts municipalities have retired the gendered names of their governing bodies, in favor of gender-neutral names — a pace that picked up after the 2016 election, with a surge in female candidates for local offices and a prod from local activists.

Jennifer Lemmerman, the Melrose alderman who championed the change for several years, said the idea was initially viewed as “a little bit out there,” if not outright “radical.”

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“Back when we tried to do it the first time a few years ago, there wasn’t quite the groundswell or the domino effect we’re seeing across the state,” she said.

This time around, she said, aldermen recognized “this is something that is important to some citizens and is a change that can be made and doesn’t necessarily change the makeup of their government in any way but is just a statement.”

The statement? “That they recognize there are diverse people who take on these leadership positions and the title should reflect that.”

In Winchester, the name change was specifically proposed to make local government more welcoming to women and less traditional candidates amid disappointment the day after the 2016 election.

“We decided that we needed to build a pipeline,” said Ruth Trimarchi, who spearheaded the effort. “It’s not a straight leap from Select Board to the White House, but without adequate numbers of highly competent women in the pipeline, the lead time is going to be much, much longer. We certainly succeeded tremendously locally.”

Winchester’s former board of selectmen had featured only six women over some 167 years of history. After the campaign to change the name succeeded in 2017, Winchester voters put three women on the Select Board at once, giving female members a majority for the first time ever.

The overhaul wasn’t just due to semantics, said Trimarchi, but to the awareness generated by the campaign to change the board’s name, and to the new involvement of voters who might not have counted themselves as contenders in a different political climate.

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“The conversation that took place for a year and a half during the process did have an impact on the ratio of men and women on the Select Board,” said Trimarchi.

“It was sort of a wake-up call, like people weren’t paying attention,” she added.

They are paying attention now.

At least 86 of Massachusetts’ 351 municipalities are now using gender-neutral names or are in the process of changing them, according to reviews by the Massachusetts Municipal Association and the Globe. Some had select boards before the name got trendy. An additional 11 communities have been using the terminology informally, though their charters or bylaws have not been changed.

Meanwhile, aldermen are nearly extinct: Melrose’s switch is expected to be finalized sometime this summer, leaving the aldermen of Woburn on their own.

In Melrose, Medeiros had voted against the name change in October 2016. But as president of the Massachusetts Municipal Councillors’ Association, she was monitoring the municipal changes and feeling like an outlier. A Republican who previously ran for state Senate, she is now a candidate for an open seat for mayor in a field of at least five candidates, including two other aldermen.

She acknowledged that not everybody is happy with her change of heart and said she “didn’t come to this lightly.”

However, her constituents are increasingly finding themselves tongue-tied, with “what’s happened in the world the last few years, especially with the #MeToo movement and more and more of the boards of aldermen deciding to change,” she said.

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“They’re falling all over themselves saying, ‘alderperson,’ ‘alderwoman.’ I think they were trying to not offend me,” she said. “This is at a point where it’s distracting from the issue that the person actually came to talk to me about.”


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert