What The Gov: Why Is She Called 'Alderman'?

The term “alderman” is used for all Chicago City Council members, regardless of gender. Some incoming aldermen say it’s time to update the title.

This article is part of a series called What the Gov, where BGA Engagement Editor Mia Sato takes reader questions about Chicago and Illinois politics and government and tracks down the answers. Ask your own question here.

Chicago will soon have women at the helm of all of its major offices — its first black woman as mayor with the historic election of Lori Lightfoot; City Clerk Anna Valencia, who was re-elected without a challenger; and state Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin, city treasurer-elect. And don’t forget Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the first woman elected to the position.

It’s clear women can serve in leadership roles that men have held. But in Chicago and across Illinois, one gendered title that some consider outdated has caused disagreements and even legal challenges in the past.

Why do we call even female members of a city council “aldermen”? And could a new city council lead the change towards gender neutral titles?

Past Fights and Pushback

Former Evanston Ald. Jane Grover recalls a lifelong sensitivity to gender stereotyping and terminology.

In June 2011, the city council rules committee in that North Shore suburb was in the midst of updating and modernizing the city code, and had already changed all the exclusively male pronouns to a more inclusive alternative, when Grover proposed replacing the term "alderman" with the gender neutral “council member.”

During the committee meeting, Grover raised neighboring Wisconsin as an example of an entire state changing the term “alderman” to “alderperson.”

“I’ve always edited things I’ve read for gender neutrality, or gender-specific references, and just thought this was an obvious one,” Grover said.

According to meeting minutes, council response to Grover ranged from unenthusiastic to complete opposition. Another female alderman wondered how much it would cost to change titles on business cards and other items with members’ names attached.

“I got the sense that people thought it was kind of frivolous,” Grover said.

But even without pushback from other aldermen, changing the title had legal implications: according to the Illinois Municipal Code, which sets the ground rules for municipalities in the state, “alderman” is the only officially recognized title for someone holding that position, whatever their gender may be, in communities that are designated cities. Updating the official title needs to start down in Springfield, where legislators would change the part of the Illinois municipal code identifying the names of local offices.

The majority female Evanston City Council voted 9-1 to keep the title of alderman, Grover being the one dissenting vote.

“Language says something. Language has meaning, titles have meaning,” Grover said. “And sometimes custom and practice is not enough to hold onto something that is inherently sexist.”

Grover said she would probably bring up gender neutral titles again if she were still on the Evanston City Council.

New Year, New Titles

A lot has changed since 2011, when the discussion in Evanston ended without further debate, and even since 2014, when WBEZ Curious City reporting showed changing Chicago City Council titles to be gender neutral wasn’t on many council members’ radars.

At the state level, the new year already brought some change that edits official wording for gender neutrality.

As of Jan. 1, the State Board of Elections has a “chair” and “committeeperson[s]” instead of a chairman and committeemen, respectively. Former Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the Election Code change into law in August 2018.

In With The New

Back in Chicago, many female incumbents on the City Council said that changing their title to make it gender appropriate is not a high priority, or in some cases, even a consideration.

“I would prefer to be referred to as the job that is described in the statute,” Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said. That would be “alderman” — and alderman alone.

But newcomer Maria Hadden, who will soon replace veteran incumbent Joe Moore in the the 49th Ward on the North Side, sees it differently. 

“I think it's important to move to gender neutral and more inclusive terms, period,” Hadden said. “Because while I might not have a preference, it doesn't mean that the person after me doesn't.”

Hadden is only the second woman to represent her ward and the first openly gay black woman elected on the council. She said she prefers “alderwoman” to be used when referring to her, but doesn't necessarily have a problem with the official designation. Hadden said she made gender neutrality and inclusivity a priority during her campaign.

“Especially as someone with born identities that are often marginalized, I’m always thinking of who’s not in the room, who’s not in the space,” Hadden said. “I don't think it's fair to always leave battles or challenges to the people who are most impacted by it directly.”

Hadden said the issue, while not an immediate priority, is one she would like to work on with state lawmakers and said there’s interest among other incoming council members.

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), meanwhile, said that though she’s not opposed to the idea of transitioning to gender neutral titles, “there are other, more pressing” citywide issues she is focused on.

So is an official title change on the horizon? In an election where first-time and grassroots candidates ousted powerful incumbents and bested big-name opponents, Hadden said gender neutral titles are just one part of redefining who gets to sit on the City Council.

“I think that it’s not coincidental that it comes up at a time where there are a lot of us who are not just trying to revamp the term, but also re-envision what the role of alderman is in Chicago, and what that means to people.”