`Alderman' outdated, says Annapolis councilwoman

Board to consider proposal to change title to reflect gender

August 06, 2002|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

Alderman Joshua Cohen was about to leave the Annapolis city council chambers last month when his colleague Classie Gillis Hoyle shouted, "Goodbye, Alderwoman Cohen."

Halfway out the door, Cohen wheeled around, visibly perplexed.

"See how it feels?" Hoyle said.

Hoyle, who took office in December, can't stand it when she is called "alderman," the official title of members of the Annapolis city council. Now that women have a majority on the council for the first time in the city's nearly 300-year history, Hoyle is fighting to change her official title to reflect her gender.

Some colleagues dismiss the proposal, calling it unimportant and even "ludicrous." When it goes to public hearing, probably next month, it is expected to spark a debate over political correctness vs. tradition.

Hoyle, a former director of affirmative action at the University of Iowa, is so sensitive to sexism, ageism and racism, she said, that "I couldn't even force myself to say `alderman.'"

In Maryland, members of Frederick's Board of Aldermen also use the term. In most other local governments in the region, including Anne Arundel County's and Baltimore City's, council members are referred to as "councilman" or "councilwoman."

"When I got on the council, everyone was referring to people as `aldermen,'" Hoyle said. "I said, `I'm not a man, you know. I'm a woman. I want to be Alderwoman.' "

But while some of her colleagues in Annapolis have respected her wishes and refer to her as "Alderwoman," some vehemently oppose changing the official title.

"I feel it is ludicrous legislation," said Alderman David Cordle, also a first-term council member. "The term `alderman' is not related to gender.

"Political correctness has just gone totally amok these last few years," he said.

`History to our title'

Alder ... um ... man Louise Hammond agrees, and calls Hoyle's concerns "silly."

"I'm an alderman, and I would be offended if I am called anything else," she said. "We're a city of history, and there is a history to our title."

Others in the city are even more blunt about it.

"`Alderwoman' sounds idiotic," said former Mayor Richard L. Hillman, who headed up the city's charter review commission last year. The commission heard Hoyle's concerns and recommended against changing the title. "It's not a matter of any importance at all."

Not so, argues a linguist from the University of Maryland.

"To those who say it is historic: `Oh pish tush,'" said Linda Coleman, an associate professor of English language.

In Old English, where the term originated, alder means "elder" and man means "person." But in Modern English, man is no longer a gender-neutral term, she said.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes references to the word alderwoman as the wife of an alderman dating to 1640, about the time Annapolis was settled. A few decades after the city was chartered in 1708, the word was used in England for women serving as aldermen.

"It would be wise," Coleman said, "to bring it right into the 18th century."

She points to another problem: Research indicates that male-based language causes people not to see women in those roles, she said.

When Annapolis was chartered, long before women were given the right to vote in the United States, the semantics of the city council title were not an issue.

But today, women hold five of the nine council seats, and the city has its first female mayor, Ellen O. Moyer.

Moyer -- who reluctantly accepts being addressed as "Madam Mayor" -- said she will support Hoyle's legislation. In her 14 years on the council, she said, she avoided using "alderman," opting instead to introduce herself as a "member of the city council."

"When the city council was formed it was all men," Hoyle said. "Now we have majority women on the council. Let's call them women."

`Archaic' custom

Duchy Trachtenberg, executive vice president of the Maryland chapter of the National Organization for Women, agrees. She called the title an "archaic political custom" and said she would bring up Hoyle's legislation at the group's next board meeting.

"It sounds like a reasonable approach to see to it that women are equitably represented and recognized," said Trachtenberg, who is a Democratic candidate for the Montgomery County Council. "We certainly would understand the significance that women are addressed as women and not men."

Hoyle and Coleman note that other titles -- congressman, policeman and fireman -- have also been changed to gender-neutral or gender-appropriate terms to accommodate the growing number of women in those fields.

Soon, Annapolis' aldermen may follow suit. Hoyle said she thinks her legislation has the votes to pass. Her supporters include the alderman she teased last month.

"It is time for Annapolis to move into the 21st century and allow different titles for genders," Cohen said. "I wouldn't want to be called `alderwoman.'"

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