Around New England

War on ‘-Men’ Continues in Melrose, Massachusetts Legislature

June 4, 2019

The last remaining city in Massachusetts with a Board of Aldermen is asking the state Legislature to approve a change in the city’s charter to make its top board a city council, in order to go gender-neutral.

State Representative Paul Brodeur, a Democrat from Melrose who is running for mayor, told State House News Service he first proposed the change when he was an alderman in 2004, but that it went nowhere.

“To say it didn’t get off the launchpad would be a generous description of my success. But the good news is, times have changed, and leadership changes,” Brodeur said, according to State House News Service.

Brodeur is the sponsor of Massachusetts House Bill 3822, which would establish a new city charter for Melrose that uses forms of the terms “council” and “councilor” 192 times, but doesn’t refer to “aldermen.”

“Alderman” is a term deriving from medieval England. In the United States it has typically been used in small cities to describe members of the city’s elected executive board, while larger cities have typically used the term city council to describe their top board.

Critics of terms that use “man” or “men” as a suffix argue that they suggest that males are the ordinary holders of such positions as opposed to females, and that that’s a bad message to send.

Critics of changing such terms argue that “man” or “men” as a suffix refers to human beings as a species, not to the male portion of the species. Some also maintain that traditional terms should be kept.

The charter was approved by the 11-member Melrose Board of Aldermen earlier this year.

The city’s Board of Aldermen discussed the proposed change during a meeting April 8. It drew comments from several residents, according to a video published by the city’s local cable access station (starting at about 1:08:00).

Speaking against was Helen Chisholm, a Melrose resident.

“You’ve been speaking tonight about the charter. And I don’t know how long the talk goes on about changing things in the charter,” Chisholm said. “But I know that one of things that’s already been discussed and it was voted down was the changing of the name, of this body, from aldermen to council, or councilmen, or councilwomen, whatever it is. If it’s already been voted, I don’t know why it’s being brought back up. I’m sure there are other things within the charter that need to be brought back up. That’s my comment on that.”

In favor, among others, was Maya Jamaleddine, chairman of the Melrose Human Rights Commission, who said she was also speaking on behalf of the Melrose Commission on Women.

Jamaleddine said:

“Changing the name from ‘Board of Aldermen’ to a more gender-neutral term, ‘city council,’ will not change the important work that Melrose’s legislative body does. Instead, by adopting a more modern and inclusive name, we demonstrate Melrose’s commitment in making our city more equitable to all people. While the name ‘Board of Aldermen’ holds a historic reference, it’s an antiquated and non-inclusive term that projects a perception around who we as a community actively involve. With a term like ‘aldermen,’ derived from the Old English title of ‘ealdorman,’ literally meaning ‘elder men,’ Melrose’s legislative branch does not reflect the fact that in Melrose approximately 52 percent of the population identifies as female. It’s important for Melrose to demonstrate to all its citizens, including through how it names its boards, that its government represents all its people. The members of the Melrose Commission on Women and the Melrose Human Rights Commission supports changing the name of Melrose’s legislative branch from a board of aldermen to a city council. With a gender-neutral new term, the Melrose city council will continue its important work without the hurdle of non-inclusive labels.”

The move to change the term follows several towns in Massachusetts that have voted to ditch “selectmen” for the name of their top board. Selectman is an office that has existed in New England since the founding of Massachusetts in the 1630s.

Other Massachusetts cities that have switched from a board of aldermen include Somerville (2019), Newton (2015), Everett (2011), Chicopee (2009), Chelsea (1995), and Holyoke (1991), according to State House News Service.

As of today the city of Melrose’s web site still refers to the “Board of Aldermen”:

One city in Wisconsin has decided to go with the term “alderpersons”: