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Is it Time to Cancel “Alderman”?

Even without the “-man,” the term, derived from “ealder,” has patriarchal overtones.

“Councilor, Alder, Alderperson … there are good options available,” says Maria Hadden, running in the 49th Ward.   Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune

In Rogers Park, Maria Hadden is running for an office mentioned nowhere in the Chicago Municipal Code.

“Maria Hadden for 49th Ward Alderwoman,” her site reads.

In accordance with state statute, the Municipal Code, the city’s governing document, refers to all members of the City Council as “aldermen.” Most women on the council accept this nomenclature. Leslie Hairston’s website refers to her as “5th Ward Alderman.” Toni Preckwinkle’s mayoral campaign bio says she “served 19 years as alderman of the 4th Ward.”

But in a city in which the next mayor could very well be a woman, Hadden says it’s time for gender-inclusive and -neutral political titles.

“I choose to use the term ‘alderwoman’ both to highlight the fact that we have so few women who serve in the role, and have only had one woman, Esther Saperstein, who has represented the 49th Ward," Hadden told me.

“Do I think the term should be updated to a gender-neutral term? One of the most valuable insights I’ve gained, in my years working with communities to make local government more inclusive, is that so [many] of the structures that currently exist need to be revised to fit the needs of the people living here and now. Councilor, Alder, Alderperson … there are good options available.”

To craft a more inclusive title for our wards’ representatives, it helps to examine the etymology of “alderman.” The word derives from “ealdor,” the Old English term for “chief,” which itself derives from “eald,” or old. As Ed Bachrach and Austin Berg write in The New Chicago Way, “[t]he word alderman is a variation on elderman and reflects the patrimonial village chief role played in traditional societies worldwide. As a verb, to ward is to protect or guard; as a noun, it is a place where people are protected, as in a ward in a hospital.”

So even without the -man, the title has patriarchal implications, suggestive as it is of a “big man” as protector. For that reason, “Alder” is probably not a good solution.

In Spanish-speaking wards, aldermen often put up signs describing themselves as “consejal,” or councilor. Spanish being a Romance language, that’s easily feminized by adding an “a,” for “consejala.”

The state of Illinois has already degendered some political terminology. On January 1, a new law took effect changing the title of ward and township “committeeman” (an office held by most aldermen) to “committeeperson.” Why not do the same for alderman?

“Words do have meaning,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake. “Women and men make up our political parties and our leaders. Our laws should provide no preference, even in language, to one or the other. It’s simple, but I think it’s a meaningful gesture.”

So is it time for Chicago to give up “alderman"? It’s a title deeply rooted not just in the city’s political culture, but in its popular culture. (This being Chicago, the two are nearly inseparable.)

In James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, a portrayal of South Side Irish culture during the Depression, the title character refers to his burgeoning belly as an “alderman,” after the portly politicians who ruled the city. “Alderman” is synonymous with “Chicago politician,” since no other major city uses that title (although it is used by all Illinois municipalities organized as cities).

Our peer cities use gender-neutral titles. In New York, a member of the City Council is a “Council Member;” in Los Angeles, a “Councilmember;” in Toronto, a “Councillor.”

In Chicago, “alderwoman” — or “alderperson” — is a solution that both honors the city’s traditions and brings them into the modern era. Even the crustiest old alderman would have to agree.

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