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Does language matter in a local governance issue?

Social justice prevails in a society when all persons are treated fairly and respectfully. Sexism, an ideology and practice that affirms the superiority of one gender, usually men, over women, has no place in a just society. In English-speaking countries, feminists and human rights advocates have recognized since the 1970s that sexist language asserts male dominance, can oppress women, and represents a violation of their human rights. The elimination of sexist language in school, work, and everyday discourse has been a long-standing goal of feminists and all persons committed to gender equity.

During the 1990s, most Canadian cities recognized the sexist nature of the title alderman for elected municipal representatives and adopted the inclusive, gender- sensitive title councillor. The City Council of Calgary first addressed a motion to change the title in 1977 but resisted the change for more than two decades (Valentich, 2009). This article identifies the impetus for feminist organizing in Calgary regarding the title change, namely the poor showing of women in politics in Canada, and it presents a historical account of the change process. Theoretical rationales for changing the title are considered along with the implications of keeping or changing the title.

The article is based on the author's engagement with the issue since the mid1980s as a community activist.

The Canadian Context for Female Politicians

Second-wave feminists in Canada and the United States eagerly reviewed all institutions in the late 1960s and 1970s with respect to the status of women. At no level of government were women doing particularly well with respect to having achieved political office (Bashevkin, 2009; Trimble & Arscott, 2003). The current percentage at the federal level in Parliament is 22.1 percent, even though women make up 52 percent of the Canadian population. This is the highest political participation for women in Canadian history, and it has improved only marginally over the past dozen years (Women lose, 2010).

Provincially (Trimble & Arscott, 2003) and municipally (Dootjes, 2010), women make up fewer than 25 percent of elected members. Calgary did break new ground in the British Empire by electing Annie Gale as the first female alderman in the 1917 Calgary civic election. The following year she was made acting mayor, again the first woman to hold such office in the British Empire. She served until 1923. However, since 1894, the date of Calgary's incorporation as a city, there has been a total of thirty women on the council. Whereas Calgary's City Council has never had more than four of fourteen women as members (29 percent), Edmonton, Alberta, has had 33 percent, and Vancouver, British Columbia, has had 40 percent (Kingston, 2010). On October 18, 2010, Calgarians elected three women and eleven men to the council (21 percent) and a male mayor.

Dootjes (2010), a councillor from 2004 to 2010 in Canmore, Alberta, noted that she served from 2004 to 2010; in her first term, she was the only woman, with five male councillors and a male mayor. Yet in her view, local government is where tax dollars have the greatest impact on daily lives, with local policy decisions on housing, recreation, and day care made largely from male perspectives.

No one claims that there is only one barrier to women's gaining political office in Canada. Most political parties believe that various measures should be taken to remove obstacles to women's engagement in politics. Feminists believe that sexist language is one such barrier. It demeans women because of their gender, and in this instance, it negates their gender.

Changing Alderman to Councillor

Upon incorporation as a city in 1894, Calgary changed the title of town councillor to alderman, a term deriving from usage in Great Britain. In the City of London the term alderman or elderman was used during Saxon times; the first mention of an alderman of London by name appears in 1111 (First honorary, 2011). Historically, it was an honorary position, without financial compensation.

Haggins (2002) documented the history of motions to change the title in Calgary in preparation for a motion presented by Diane Danielson, Madeleine King, and Bob Hawkesworth in 2003.

On November 28, 19 77, Alderman Patricia Donnelly, working with the Calgarians Francis Wright and Maria Eriksen (F. Wright, personal communication, December 10, 2010), moved that "the title of Alderman be phased out and replaced by the term 'Councillor.'" This motion was defeated by a 12-2 vote. Donnelly tried again on January 22, 19 79, with a motion that was defeated by a 12-3 vote. Alderman Elaine Husband proposed use of the term councillor in 1983; the motion was referred to the Legislative Resources and Structural Review Committee, from where it never emerged.

In 1987, the citizen Glenna Cross requested a title change, but the city clerk concluded that alderman was a unique and specific title that readily identifies the person's office, whereas councillor could have broader application (Geddes, 1987). The city clerk suggested that the issue was one of status rather than gender and that alderman stood out historically as the most appropriate term. In 1987, all cities in Alberta and twelve of seventeen cities in other provinces were still using alderman. Mayor Klein (personal communication, February 25, 1987) rejected the author's letter of protest of February 18, 1987, by indicating that a majority of the City Council agreed with the recommendation taken from the British Parliamentary Guide that alderman, like chairman, did not recognize sex and that alderman denoted a position, not the gender of the person who filled the position. He stated that the council, notwithstanding what other municipalities might choose, had decided to retain the traditional term.

Undoubtedly, other activities occurred in City Council. For example, Jon Lord (personal communication, September 9,2010) revealed that as a new member of council in 1989, he broached the idea of changing the title, only to have the idea "killed" by a powerful member of the council, Sue Higgins, who famously declared that she liked being called an "alderbroad."

Haggins (2002) noted that the Municipal Act of 1994 was amended to permit the use of alderman, but it was not the term provided in the legislation, which thereby made alderman the exception rather than the rule. She included comments of the Council of Red Deer, Alberta, when it changed its title in 1995: "It is in the interest of the City to have a diverse Council representing all groups, and to have a Council which remains current with changing social attitudes and perceptions [and] that the official title of 'Alderman' may be perceived as having a gender bias" (n.p.)

Haggins (2002) reported that a review of major Canadian cities found that only Calgary, Medicine Hat, and Lethbridge (all in Alberta) still used the term alderman and that the term alderman was clearly in violation of the City of Calgary's (1992) Guidelines for Achieving Equity in Corporate Communications, which promoted usage of inclusive, gender-sensitive language for city employees. She concluded that the City Council's language needed to change to better reflect current standards of a modern city.

In 2001 the Calgarians Fay Ash, E. Lisbeth Donaldson, Jack Locke, Susan Stratton, and Mary Valentich decided to promote the title change more vigorously. They were immediately joined by Bernie Amell, Jim Gripton, Dona Vine-Mutton, and Ross Vine-Mutton, with support from the activist singing group the Raging Grannies. The original nine lobbied council members, wrote letters to the editor and opinion pieces, issued press releases, made media commentaries, presented in classrooms and conferences, and ultimately provided a citizens' petition to council members who favored the change (i.e., Joe Ceci, Diane Danielson, Bob Hawkesworth, and Madeleine King).

Danielson, Hawkesworth, and King presented a motion to reflect Calgary as an inclusive city on September 22, 2003. The four proponents for change spoke eloquently about the human right of all council members to be named by their correct gender, the city's image, younger women's negative reactions to having their genders misrepresented, and the awkwardness of Calgarians who did not know how to address women who were aldermen (e.g., Miss Alderman? Ms. Alderman? Madame Alderman?). King was interrupted once by council member Ric Mclver on a procedural point. The long-awaited debate never occurred. The vote against the motion was 11-4. Journalist Don Braid (2003) called it one of City Council's most ignoble performances in years.

The nine citizens then filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission of Alberta on December 15, 2003, arguing that alderman was discriminatory on grounds of gender and age, and specifying the areas in which discrimination occurred (e.g., employment practices; goods and services; accommodation and facilities; statements, publications, notices, signs, symbols, emblems, and representations). Their position was that the title incorrectly identified women's gender; that it placed a barrier before women and girls who aspired to public office; that they did not have confidence in the elected officials to offer inclusive service to Calgarians; and that they were regularly reminded by publications that women's gender identity was negated by a term that suggested that older men were the right and proper people to hold positions as ward representatives.

The Human Rights Commission proposed conciliation and a conciliator was named, but the city's legal department would not meet with the nine complainants. The complaint moved to the investigation phase, and an investigator's report was completed in 2007. The complaint was ultimately dismissed, first because elected officials were not deemed employees and because the complainants did not have any relationship with them as employees. Second, age was not a ground of discrimination in relation to goods and services; and in the investigator's view, there was insufficient information to conclude that any service provided by council members was in any way measurably different either for complainants individually or for any class of persons because of the use of the title alderman. Finally, although the complainants found the title offensive, the investigator did not find that the term alderman itself had any discriminatory effect.

The complainants appealed the decision, indicating that the members of council engaged in public service and continuously used the term alderman, which showed disrespect for women's gender and for those valuing fair treatment of all persons. The complainants argued that the existence of sexist language "reflects the extent to which sexism is deeply rooted in our cultural traditions" (Ashford, LeCroy, & Lortie, 1997, p. 129). The appeal was, however, dismissed on June 7, 2007.

The then seven Calgarians (after a relocation and a death) formed Citizens for Calgary Councillors and continued with their lobbying activities, including a protest during the Canadian Federation of Municipalities Conference held in Calgary in June 2007. In preparation for a municipal election in October 2007, the group raised public awareness through the distribution of handbills, performances by the Raging Grannies, and use of the media (which in general supported the change of title). The exception was Naomi Lakritz (2007), editor of the Calgary Herald's letters section, who decried the group's attention to this seemingly trivial issue when there were so many pressing women's issues in the world. However, Citizens for Calgary Councillors viewed sexist language as an act of violence against women, and thereby supportive of other violence such as sexual abuse, domestic abuse, murder, and sexual assault of women.

Despite growing public support, there were sarcastic comments on radio talk shows, editorial digs, and occasional anonymous telephone callers berating the group for engaging in so-called social engineering. The group was derisively referred to as "those university women" and chastised for not wanting to change the names of bachelor's and master's degrees. Some critics wrote long letters to the editor on how the term alderman was the appropriate term, how the root of councillor in Latin languages was masculine based, and how we would not stop with alderman but would insist on changing any word that had man in it (e.g., the province of Manitoba). King, the mover of the 2003 motion, was attacked for keeping her name as King--should she not be called Queen? Group members were also accused of wanting to get rid of the monarchy, the queen of England also being queen of Canada, and of being like "those feminists" who had lobbied for pay equity. Other concerns focused on the cost, a matter deemed insignificant by other municipalities, as existing supplies were fully used and changes were timed to the next election.

Calgary's resistance to changing the title may be understood in relation to the city's being a bastion of conservatism dating back to the days of the Old West, when cowboys ruled and women were relegated to the homestead (Valentich, 2009). More recently, in a classroom presentation, a tenth-grade girl quietly told the author that we were wrong to persist with this campaign because women's place was at home and men were the ones "out in the world." The teacher later indicated that there were students with fundamentalist Christian backgrounds in his classroom. In contrast, former Mayor Bronconnier had received a letter in 2003 from nine-year-old Vicky Choi, who asked that the title be changed from alderman to councillor because "it is rude to call women on City Council, Aldermen."

In 2007 Lynn Gaudet, president of the local Council of Women and the Citizens for Calgary Councillors, surveyed candidates and reported the findings in the Calgary Herald (Gaudet, Kinch, Stratton, & Wright, 2007). None of the twenty-three respondents was opposed to the change; twenty-one were soundly in favor, viewing the matter as a no-brainer. Although aware that most council members did not favor a change, Alderman Dale Hodges, a male council member, proposed a motion on December 3, 2007. Those favoring the motion spoke, but only Druh Farrell argued against the motion. Mayor Bronconnier absented himself for the vote, which was lost 8-6.

Before the October 18, 2010 election, in September 2010 Citizens for Calgary Councillors conducted a survey of the ninety-five candidates running for mayor (fifteen) and council (eighty) and received responses from thirty-seven candidates (Gaudet & Valentich, 2010). The results suggested that the vote broke down with nine in favor, five against (if the incumbents voted as they did in 2007), and one unknown. Gender equity was the focus of several of the mayoralty candidates' comments on the survey: "We need a more respectful title [that] sends a positive message to young women in Calgary" (Bob Hawkesworth); "Age and gender are no longer criteria for seeking office" (Daniel Knight); and "In a society that continues to fight for gender equity, our language should reflect the advances we have made" (Bonnie Devine).

Devine commented that when she signed the official papers to run for mayor, an s needed to be added by hand in front of the he. Clearly, the city had not yet come to grips with the idea that women might actually run for mayor, even though there had been a female candidate a few elections earlier. Naheed Nenshi who became the new mayor stated that City Council should use nonexclusionary language whenever possible.

Themes among the respondents favoring change was that the term was archaic, had no place in a progressive city, demeaned women, and puzzled persons familiar with the term councillor. Among the eight ward candidates who did not support a change and the thirteen who were undecided, concern with finances was mentioned.

A review of the responses of council members newly elected in October 2010 showed that City Council still had mixed views about the title (Gaudet & Valentich, 2010). The public, according to media polls and letters to the editor, was about evenly divided. Even the council members in support of the change were not keen on bringing a new motion forward that might prove divisive.

In the December 13, 2010, council meeting, Dale Hodges and Shane Keating proposed a motion to change the title. After one attempt to refer the motion back for more public input and financial review, the original motion was finally debated. Two of the three women elected to City Council voted against the change; Druh Farrell again decried the sexism she experienced regularly at City Hall but did not make a connection between her experience and sexist language. Some members avoided referring to gender equity, focusing instead on the cost of getting new signs for the election in 2013. However, the mayor and the movers of the motion stressed to City Council that the issue did relate to equity and respectful treatment of women and that it simply was time to make the change. The motion passed by a vote of 9-6, to take effect fully on Election Day in October 2013, although council members could begin to call themselves councillors outside of council chambers and order new cards and letterhead when they had used up existing supplies.

Why has this change been resisted so strongly in Calgary for so long? Does language matter, even symbolically, in a local governance issue? A review of theoretical perspectives and relevant research may provide some answers.

Feminist Perspectives on Language

Most children who have grown up in English-speaking Canada have learned the time-honored adage "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." Most children also know that taunts from other children do hurt! Nasty names are often directed toward individual or group identity. People of Slavic origin in Canada were derogatorily called honkie, hunkie, and bohunk. Italians were called wops; the Japanese, Japs; and people from Pakistan, Pakis. Immigrants of Slavic origin during the 1960s and 1970s were DPs, for displaced persons. Chinese Canadians who first came to Canada in the mid- 1880s to build railroads were called Chinamen. It was not until 1997 that a famous peak in the Rocky Mountains of western Canada, known for years as Chinaman's Peak, was renamed Ha Ling Peak, after the cook who had climbed it in record speed. Monture, a First Nations activist, railed against all the names assigned to her people: "First Nations, aboriginal, indigenous, native and Indian are all 'imposed' words.... None of them are our words. None of them express who we are.... So I'm not going to engage in a debate about which imposition is less wrong. They're all wrong. They're all colonial" (quoted in Csillag, 2010, p. R5).

Most people realize that racist language does have power. However, it was not until the 19 70s that feminists in English-speaking countries addressed the hurtful nature of sexist language and prejudicial and discriminatory language directed toward individuals simply because of their gender, with the target usually being women. The feminists' initial focus was on words such as he, mankind, and chairman. Suggestions for change included alternating between he and she or using they, humankind or people, and chair or chairperson, respectively.

Dale Spender (1980) contributed greatly to the examination of sexist language. Her work enabled women and men to consider the implications of using words that did not acknowledge women's existence. Spender's point is that "language is not neutral ... not merely a vehicle which carries ideas [but] is itself a shaper of ideas." Cameron (1990) criticized Spender's focus on words when the discourse, the entire way of speaking and presenting ideas, might be the vehicle that puts women in a secondary place.

Furthermore, according to Black and Coward (1990), we should be aiming not for a sex-neutral discourse that refers to men and women equally but for a discourse in which men's gender is recognized and not considered representative of "human." Thus, alderman would be recognized as a gendered and not an inclusive term.

Much activity to change the sexist nature of the English language occurred during the 1980s and 1990s. Primary school textbooks were reviewed, and changes were made to reflect that girls and boys were eligible for all occupations. Words such as businessman, postman, fireman, policeman, delivery boy, and draftsman were replaced by business executive, postal carrier, firefighter, police officer, courier, and draftsperson, respectively. Students were expected to write in language that did not exclude women. Style manuals were adapted to reflect these changes. A nonsexist dictionary was published to assist persons in using gender-sensitive language (Maggio, 1988).

All this activity prompted debate. Some railed against the pervasiveness of political correctness, which made it virtually impossible, they argued, to know how to address women in the work force. A human rights case pertaining to discriminatory treatment of a woman who was a landman was won in 2008 after a seventeen-year battle, although the title landman remains (Slade, 2008).

Feminists still view several commonly heard words as sexist: the use of guys for women and men, emcee (master of ceremonies) when host might be applicable, and use of chairman and ombudsman. In addition, one occasionally hears sports commentators referring to the "girls," when women are playing a sport and male players are not called boys. Many public washrooms are still labeled "Ladies" and "Men," not "Ladies" and "Gentlemen" or "Women" and "Men."

Postmodern Perspectives on Language

Feminist perspectives are closely aligned with postmodern and poststructuralist perspectives that focus on language and discourse (Mullaly, 2007; Preece, 2002). Mullaly (2007) asserts that language is not politically neutral, citing Howe's 1994 summary of the relationship between power and language: "Those with power can control the language of the discourse and can therefore influence how the world is to be seen and what it will mean. Language promotes some possibilities and excludes others; it constrains what we see and what we do not see" (p. 178).

The concept of discourse, in modernist usage, refers to talking or a way of talking about a topic. Discourse "includes not only language, but the rules governing the choice and use of language and how the ideas and language will be framed" (Mullaly, 2007, p. 178). Mullaly (2007) argues that a discourse, as a framework of thought, meaning, and action does not reflect knowledge, reality, or truth but creates and maintains them. Usually, one discourse dominates: "The dominant discourse(s) today largely reflects the interests of global capitalism, patriarchy, and people of European descent" (p. 179). One might argue that alderman is congruent with those interests.

Another critique of modernist epistemology pertains to the binary or oppositional structure of Western thought, which appears to be based on dualisms such as mind-body, reason-emotion, human-animal, and man-woman. In these dualisms, the two terms are not complementary, and the first term is more highly valued than the second. These binaries restrict our thinking and our identities rather than enabling us to, for example, consider a multiplicity of genders (Mullaly, 2007, p. 178).

Political Science Perspectives on Language

The best-known instance relating to women and the language of politics in Canadian history is the Famous Five case. In 1929 five women challenged the British North America Act that excluded women from sitting in the Senate of Canada (Trimble & Arscott, 2003). They successfully appealed to the Privy Council of Great Britain, which declared that women were persons and could sit in the Senate of Canada.

Despite this major triumph, Trimble and Arscott (2003) concluded that women have gained only a minimal foothold in Canadian politics. A report by a coalition of labor and women's groups notes that the World Economic Forum gender-gap index ranked Canada seventh in 2004, but in 2009 Canada had fallen to twenty-fifth (Women lose, 2010). The coalition reports

that, with respect to women's representation in politics, Canada's ranking has slid to forty-ninth from forty-seventh, behind a significant number of developing countries.

In relation to media portrayals of the few women who have been leaders of parties in Canadian politics, Trimble and Arscott (2003) stated: "The metaphoric language of election coverage is often aggressive and gladiatorial, replete with images of the boxing ring, competitive sports, and the battlefield. Describing election events with masculinist imagery generally disadvantages female political actors, as women do not generally come to mind when we conjure up images of pugilists, soldiers, or sports stars.... They are cast as electoral weaklings by journalists and pundits" (p. 92).

In general, female politicians receive considerable media attention for their "feminine" characteristics: their household duties; their personal relationships; and observations about their wardrobe, hair, makeup, and weight. Verbal attacks are often directed at female politicians who refuse to conform to gender stereotypes: "Female legislators are quite routinely shouted down, verbally and sexually harassed, heckled, and ridiculed because they are women" (Trimble & Arscott, 2003, p. 101).

Bashevkin (2009) explains the low profile of women in politics through her discomfort equation; namely, women plus power equals discomfort. Her equation refers to a normative climate that "says either no woman is good enough to be a public leader, or else no normal woman is (or would ever want to be) powerful" (Bashevkin, 2009, p. 11). She concludes that "representative democracy seems impaired, partial, and unjust when women, as a majority of citizens, fail to see themselves reflected in the leadership of their polity, and when men, as a minority of citizens, control most levers of power" (Bashevkin, 2009, p. 15).

In Bashevkin's view, everyday conversation reveals why we can't quite come to grips with women as assertive politicians. The term ballbuster suggests a fear of the powerful or confident woman who is perceived as bossy, strident, or pushy, as Sheila Copps was often portrayed. Society's frequent use of first names for female politicians seems "friendly," but it can trivialize individual women or suggest an absence of power and legitimacy. Kim (Campbell), Sheila (Copps), and even Hillary (Clinton) are "girls next door." Such language is designed to control, push away, or eliminate the threat that women represent to some. A study of voter attitudes in the United States (Page, 2010) demonstrates that even mild sexist comments undermined a female politician's credibility.

Bashevkin (2009) also believes that the media focuses on female politicians' appearance, clothing, and attractiveness (Fain, 2010), not the typical way male politicians are presented. The sexualization of female politicians occurs primarily through language that is both direct and suggestive. For example, Sheila Copps was called "baby," "slut," and "bitch" (Bashevkin, 2009, p. 84). If the female politician can be stereotyped sexually, she will be debased, and there will be no need to listen seriously to her. Women in the political realm may also be stereotyped in terms of traditional gender roles: Michelle Obama is rarely presented as the smart lawyer. She is wife, mother, and fashion plate.

Finally, Bashevkin (2009) refers to the work of the National Action Committee to include "women's equality language in the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms" and to "breathe life into new constitutional language" (p. 124). Much feminist organizing by women took place in the mid- 1980s to ensure that section 15 of the charter proclaimed that every individual was equal before the law and that in section 28, notwithstanding anything in the Charter, "the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons." Regrettably, after twenty-five years of equality rights in the charter, only ten cases have been brought forward under this legislation, and few have been successful (J. Koshan & J. W. Hamilton, personal communication, Faculty of Law, University of Calgary, November 25, 2010).

Equal Voice is an important Canadian lobbying group that promotes advancing women in politics. Equal Voice believes that the low percentage of women in office means that there will never be the critical mass to ensure that women's voices are heard on all matters of public interest.

Globally, the situation for women gaining access to political life is fairly similar (Henderson & Jeydel, 2010). Barriers and obstacles have been identified, with some countries reserving seats for women on councils. The question of language does not surface, although there is reference to traditional patriarchal institutions and cultural values that keep women out of politics. The title councillor is used in municipal politics in English-speaking countries around the world, without mention of alderman (Gender, 2004).


Feminist and other theoretical perspectives support changing the title from alderman to councillor. Changing the title means that Calgarians and City Council will no longer disrespect women by incorrectly naming their gender identity. For Calgary's City Council, the new title shows that gender and age are not criteria for entering municipal politics. The title councillor also signifies that Calgary sees itself as an equitable, modern, and progressive city. A Calgary Herald (2010) editorial concluded that the change is subtle but significant. It means one less barrier to women's full participation in municipal politics. Language clearly matters, although remnants of resistance to change among conservative Albertans remains; whereas Medicine Hat, Alberta, recently changed its title (City alderman, 2011), Airdrie, Alberta, did not (Pollock, 2011).


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Mary Valentich is professor emerita, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary. Please direct correspondence to Mary Valentich, 2500 University Drive, Calgary, AB, Canada T2N 1N4; email:
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Author:Valentich, Mary
Publication:Social Development Issues: Alternative Approaches to Global Human Needs
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Date:Feb 1, 2012
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