Helen Miranda Wilson, a select board member in Wellfleet, put it bluntly: “I’m not a man.”
For dozens of towns around the commonwealth, similar sentiments have led to towns officially changing the name of their executive boards, formerly the board of selectmen, to a variation of the name select board to reflect the inclusivity of more than one gender. The change in terminology is even reflected as high up as the Massachusetts Municipal Association, an organization that represents executive boards across the commonwealth. But on Martha’s Vineyard, none of the six towns has made the move to the more inclusive name.
“About 10 years ago, roughly, Wellfleet had a charter refreshment, and we formed a committee and worked on revising the charter. It’s sort of like the town’s constitution, which makes it hard to change,” said Wilson. The issue of referring to the town’s executives as selectmen, or changing the name to select board (Wellfleet puts the two words together, but Times style is two words) was brought up, Wilson said, and that committee rejected it. “They rejected it for reasons I think were unfounded — that the town wasn’t ready for it,” she said.
Wison was on the charter review committee last year, when a new amendment to change the name to select board was introduced, and passed at town meeting. This year, the name change was approved in a ballot election.
“There are a lot of traditions that it’s nice to maintain even if they are not laws or regulations,” Wilson said. “But a tradition that is based on the fact that women were not supposed to be in positions of government, and not supposed to have that authority … it’s a tradition that refers clearly to something that wasn’t a good thing.”
Wilson said that the transition went over well, almost as if the status quo was maintained. “After it failed 10 years ago, I just started referring to it as the select board,” Wilson explained, “without blinking an eye, many people joined … it was like spreading a seed or something.”
Mary Chaffee was an advocate for the switch in Brewster, even though she was not on the board of selectmen at the time that the switch was suggested. “It was an article in our November 2017 special fall town meeting warrant,” Chaffee said. “It was proposed by the then board of selectmen, four males and one female, and the warrant article in very simple terms called to change the name from board of selectmen to select board,” Chaffee recalled.
“An interesting thing happened at this meeting,” Chaffee said. “A male member of the board of selectmen proposed [the article], and made simple statements that it was time to recognize that someone other than men were engaged in local politics. The selectmen voted unanimously. The next speaker was the only dissenter. He was a male member of the finance committee, and he argued that the women who had already served on the board of selectmen, the five ladies, I believe he called them, had not been harmed [by the name selectmen].
“He said it was an attempt to be politically correct to solve a problem that didn’t exist,” said Chaffee.
Despite his dissent, several women voters at the town meeting spoke up in favor, including Chaffee, who cited changing lexicon for traditionally gendered jobs — fireman has shifted to firefighter, for example. After hearing from those who wanted to speak, Chaffee recalled a hugely lopsided vote in favor, with “easily 20 or fewer nays.”
“Since the change has been made, it’s just been business as usual,” Chaffee said. “It was a very smart thing to do.”
As for what Island elected officials think about the change, The Times reached out to all of the female members of the respective boards of selectmen, as well as other town officials, current and former. Not all of them responded.
“We have not had that discussion and I don’t foresee having it,” longtime Edgartown selectmen Margaret Serpa told The Times.
Gail Barmakian, a selectman from Oak Bluffs, said she has more important things to think about than a name change at this point. “[The name] select board minimizes the integrity of the position, and the history of the position,” Barmakian said. “It’s the executive board of the government, and we all act as one. I would rather see the board of selectpeople, but ultimately it is about the town and how they feel about it.”
Melinda Loberg, who is currently chairman of the Tisbury board of selectmen, agreed: “I have heard the trend, and think it’s a decent trend to have, but I personally have got so many other things to think about that it is not a top priority for me to push or pursue.”
Skipper Manter, a selectman in West Tisbury, had a slightly different point of view. “They can call us whatever they like,” Manter said. “I have no objection to whatever anyone wants to call us. It’s the importance of the position [that matters]. What they call us is irrelevant.”
To gain a little more insight on the history of the name, and Island history with the title, Tristan Israel, a longtime and now former selectman for the town of Tisbury, spoke with The Times.
“I can’t tell you I was aggressively pursuing this issue, but I did raise it a couple of years ago and mentioned it to other selectmen at the time,” Israel said.
In an age where it’s important to be politically correct, and where several towns in the state have already opted for the change, Israel said it’s an appropriate time for the change. “In New England, town government grew out of the church,” Israel explained. “Selectmen are related to the church.”
According to the textbook “History of the U.S.,” which is available online, the term selectmen dates back to Colonial times. “Several times a year the adult males met in town meeting to discuss public questions, to lay taxes, to make local laws, and to elect officers. The chief officers were the ‘selectmen,’ from three to nine in number, who should have the general management of the public business; the town clerk, treasurer, constables, assessors, and overseers of the poor,” the book states. “To this day the town government continues in a large measure in some parts of New England. The county in New England was of much less importance than the town. Its business was chiefly the holding of courts of law, the keeping of court records, and the care of prisoners.”
While towns like Wellfleet, Brewster, Provincetown, and some as close as Falmouth (they use the term, but haven’t adopted it officially), have embraced the gender-neutral “select board,” there’s no momentum for such a change on the Vineyard.
Loberg summed up what seems to be an Island point of view that it’s just not an important issue with so many other challenges facing town governments, like housing. “If the opportunity came up,” she said, “I would encourage people to support it.”
What’s in a name?
With the 19th Amendment nearing its 100th anniversary, it is an opportune time to reflect on the way that the U.S. has changed to include women in the fabric of society, specifically in the realm of public service and civil duties. A record number of women are serving as elected officials, on the federal, state, and local levels, which is credited by some leaders as the catalyst for this change. Here are some names that have shifted.
- congressman: member of Congress, congressperson, representative
- fireman: firefighter
- policeman: police officer
- postman: letter carrier
- salesman: salesperson
- weatherman: meteorologist