Cape Town’s Selectmen Want ‘Men’ Out of Board Title

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Members of the Falmouth Board of Selectmen concerned about gender-neutrality are thinking about changing the name of the board.

A board of “selectmen” has been the chief executive entity in most towns in New England since the 1630s when English Puritans first settled here. It refers to voters in a town selecting certain people – men in the early days – to lead the town.

But the presence of the word “man” in the singular “selectman” and “men” in the plural “selectmen” has some current members of the board of Cape Cod’s second largest town unhappy.

A letter to the editor in a local newspaper from a woman who lives in Falmouth got the ball rolling, said Selectman Susan Moran during the board meeting this week. Another woman gave Moran a nameplate with the word “chairperson” to replace the one she had saying “chairman,” which Moran held up for the camera of the town’s local cable-access television.

Board members suggested alternatives, none of which passed muster with a majority.

“Well, my suggestion’s out there. Thinking outside the box, I’d rather create a new word called ‘Selector’, which I think exists just as little as ‘selectpeople’ exist,” said Selectman Doug Jones, according to a video of the meeting made by Falmouth Community TV. “And the reason I would like the word ‘Selector,’ as it has no gender-specific whatsoever. We could then be the Board of Selectors, and have a chair of the Board of Selectors. And the fact that the word doesn’t exist I don’t think shouldn’t stop us.”

“Sounds very Latinate, so I think it’s …” said Selectman Megan English Braga.

“It absolutely does,” Jones said.

“I think it sounds ‘Star Wars’,” Moran said.

“It sounds like we’re selecting things, though, instead of being selected,” said Selectman Douglas Brown.

Selectman Samuel Patterson said he would like to see the title changed, but that he’s concerned about conflicting with formal legal language elsewhere in the state. The Massachusetts Constitution, for instance, uses the word “selectmen” 17 times.

“There’s a connection to the state constitution, and I don’t want to see that severed, because it talks about the kind of government that we have,” Patterson said.

“I’m not worried about that,” Jones said.

Selectman Douglas Brown said he has been using the term “select board” in his email messages and other communications.

“Selectperson” was also floated as an individual member of the board.

But Jones objected.

“’Person’ is just as sexist to me as ‘chairman’,” Jones said. “… ‘Son’? ‘Son’? If you take a look at the etymology in it, having the word ‘son’ in ‘person’ is actually, etymologically, just as sexist as having ‘man.’ If you actually take a look at the Latin roots of both words, ‘man’ of ‘chairman’ has nothing to do with a gender-specificity. It has to do with coming from the earth. And, you want to go ‘selectperchild,’ that would be O.K..”

“How about ‘Selectman’ and ‘Selectwoman,’ and ‘Select Board’?” said Peter Johnson-Staub, the assistant town manager.

“I just don’t need to have gender in it. I see no reason for it,” Jones said.

Some people at the table tried levity.

“Well, whatever name, my view is the force is with you,” town manager Julian Suso said, to laughter.

“I like ‘Select-bot’,” English Braga said, with a laugh.

“Selectron?” Johnson-Staub said, to laughter.

Johnson-Staub, the assistant town manager, said the town could take a root-and-branch approach and make a formal legal change, which would involve scrubbing the town charter and other legal documents of the term “selectmen,” or could leave the formal term alone and choose to refer to the board in common parlance as something other than “selectmen.”

Moran, the board chairman, said what she called “this long overdue change” would be referred to the town’s charter review committee.

The Falmouth Board of Selectmen discussed the matter for about seven and a half minutes during the board meeting Monday, January 28.