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Olson: Can ‘she’ be an alderman?

Times might have changed, but it’s still a man’s world on the city councils in our local towns.

Or an alder-man’s world, anyway.

Today, that term is a relic. Most of the “man” words that dominated the vernacular of official language have largely disappeared. Policemen have become police officers. Firemen are firefighters. We don’t refer to “mankind” unless we’re quoting Neil Armstrong, or the “postman” unless we’re talking about the film in which he always rings twice. Largely gone are references to manpower or “manning” a post.

English was shaped with a gender bias toward masculinity, and erasing it sometimes creates odd references, like calling someone who is head of a board a “chair” instead of a “chairman” or “chairwoman.”

Well, if you’re a chair, then I’m a light bulb.

Our bias toward masculinity is even more evident in our speech and thought. “He” is usually our default pronoun. With the exception of some professions, such as nursing and teaching, the general tendency is to assume that officials, animals, and so on, are male. Even when we write “police officer,” most people probably still picture a man.

Referring to any group of people as “you guys,” even if they’re all female, is part of the vernacular for us northern types. Turns out “y’all” is not only folksier, but it’s also more gender-neutral. I just can’t say it with a straight face.

DeKalb’s City Council has two female alder “men,” Kristen Lash, of Ward 3, and Monica O’Leary, of Ward 7. Lash, who’s coming up on four years on the council, said she remembered getting comments from voters when she was passing out campaign literature seeking the office of “alderman.”

She later noticed that many of the city’s ordinances are written in gender-biased style, referring to unknown people as “he.” One notable exception, she said, is a section on parents’ responsibilities when they have to take their children to court.

Lash raised this topic a couple of years ago, and proposed that gender neutrality be introduced to city ordinances. At the time, she was the only woman at the meeting, and her proposal died for lack of a second. There were no other female alderpeople at the meeting that night.

“I’m not saying that men can’t understand it at all, but that particular group of men were not sympathetic,” Lash said. “... It’s not something that affects them.”

At a Committee of the Whole meeting this week, Lash again was the impetus for council members discussing ways to end the practice. The solution they came up with was to change references to “he” to “he/she.”

Really, if you’re going to make a change, why not just make a change to leave gender references out altogether?

Even “he/she” might be oversimplifying. Some people say there are more than two genders. Facebook offers users 58 total choices for gender, including “agender,” “gender fluid,” and “two-spirit.”

“What I brought up [at the meeting] is ‘he/she’ is not gender neutral, and I just completely blew their minds,” Lash said.

To each their own. At least 1st Ward Alderman David Jacobson had a witty way for getting around that issue with the “he/she” solution.

“The slash is everything else in between,” Jacobson said.

In reality, it’s entirely possible to write almost everything in a gender-neutral way to avoid alienating males, females, or the twain-spirited. It’s the way all modern people should train their brains to think.  

Maybe city officials can be forgiven if they don’t want to rewrite pages upon pages of official documents. But solving the “alderman” conundrum wouldn’t require as much work.

In the newspaper, one way around the term is by abbreviating “alderman” as “Ald.” when it comes before a person’s name. But where alderman has nice, familiar ring to it, “alderperson” is a clunker.

Some cities use the term “council member.” Another option is to call the council members “representatives.” That word has familiar appeal, it’s plenty official-sounding and gender-neutral, and easily abbreviated as “Rep.”

Is it silly?: A lot of people might ask what the big deal is, anyway. Who cares if we call them aldermen or alderpeople or whatever, or if city ordinances only refer to people as “he”?

O’Leary herself said she feels ambivalent about her title. 

“I was elected as an alderman, so it doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’m fine either way.”

But where we have a tendency to expect women to accept masculine titles, men are almost never asked to do likewise. Notice how, when men began working as servers on passenger airlines, the term “stewardess” was replaced with “flight attendant”?

And if someone were to call me a “newswoman,” chances are they’d be doing it with every intention of insulting me. Yet we don’t expect women to feel insulted when we refer to them as men.

Doesn’t seem quite right, even if that’s the way it’s always been done.

“Don’t we run for office to change things for the better?” Lash said. “Then why should we accept something that’s not right?”

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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