Best of 2019: Sex change in a small Connecticut town
This Viewpoint was originally published on CT Mirror on October 31, 2019.
If you think men and women are fundamentally equal in America, try this. Open Google and in the search box, type: your vote is your voice. Then click on the IMAGES tab, scroll down, and you’ll see something striking. Hundreds of graphics appear, dominated by male images. A man’s sleeve, a man’s hand, a man’s mouth shouting, a figure of a man in a suit, and a giant hand of a man being held up by what appears to be dozens more men. A man stuffing a ballot box. A man lecturing. A man holding a protest sign. A superhero image, in the shape of a man.
The first woman to show up is a cartoonish, old, overweight and frumpy. Next? The “skirted woman” symbol, so we can find the bathroom.
One hundred years after women fought for the right to vote and passed the 19th Amendment, why do we still barely show up in basic images of democracy? It’s no accident that women leaders are still the minority in Connecticut’s 169 towns as well as our state government. From Southbury to Hartford, it hovers around 25-35%.
This past May, I brought a proposal to Southbury Town Hall aimed at mobilizing more women into leadership: let’s take gender reference out of the titles of the people who run the town.
For 300 years, dozens of Connecticut towns have called their leaders Selectmen and Aldermen, titles rooted in the era when women were considered the property of men. In our small town, a citizen coalition organized behind the initiative. We wrote letters and made statements at public hearings. Remarkably, the bipartisan Charter Revision Commission voted unanimously to update our antique titles. They chose an equality-minded equivalent, “selectperson,” following precedent set by hundreds of towns across Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
“Not so fast,” said town fathers, and the one woman on the Board of Selectmen, who sided with them denying it’s a gender-biased term (sorry ladies were her exact words.) They demurred and put the issue on the November 5 ballot, as follows:
Shall the proposed revision throughout the Charter, which changes the titles of the First Selectman, Board of Selectmen and Selectmen, to First Selectperson, Select Board, and Selectperson, be approved?
Question No. 4 appears on the backside of the ballot, written in unfortunate lawyer-speak. Despite all the forces against it, if the amendment passes small-town Southbury becomes the first in Connecticut to be led by a Selectperson and a Select Board. Individuals elected will still have the freedom to choose gender-based titles, but in official documents, all will obtain the new, gender-neutral designation.
Advocates hope to make state history with new gender-free titles they view as respectful, inclusive, and long past due. If you believe words matter, it’s hard to argue against the symbolic benefit. It’s nearly 2020, and despite a full century of progress, women still occupy a small minority of leadership roles. On the Internet, voters still don’t look like us. Town leader titles still don’t include us. But if Southbury voters say yes to Question No. 4, maybe more women will start to use our voices not just to vote, but to lead.
Michele Zommer is a lifetime Connecticut resident and a 2019 graduate of Emerge CT, which trains Democratic women to run for office. She is currently a candidate for a seat with voting power on the Southbury Planning Commission.
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