Election 2019

Ballot question: ‘Councilman’ or ‘Councilmember’? You decide.

Gender-inclusive language for the lawmakers in City Hall.

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Flickr creative commons / Jukie Bot
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UPDATE May 22: This question was approved with 68 percent of the vote.

For as long as City Council has existed, Philly has delineated between male and female lawmakers. As gender-inclusive language becomes more common across the country, officials are finally reckoning with their diction.

The first of four questions on the May 21 ballot will ask whether or not we should adopt gender-inclusive language for our lawmakers in City Hall.

What you’ll see on the ballot

Shall The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to change certain gender specific references (such as “councilman,” “councilmen,” and “Councilmanic”) to gender neutral references (such as “councilmember,” “councilmembers,” and “Council”)?

What does it mean?

Councilman Derek Green introduced ballot question. If voters decide to pass it, that’ll be Councilmember Derek Green from here on out.

This question decides whether or not the city should strike gender-based references like “councilman” and “councilwoman” from the official books.

One argument for the change is that is that it removes any underlying gender slant from discussions of a lawmaker’s proposals or policies. Another is that people who are nonbinary — or those who don’t identify as man or woman — won’t be excluded from the city’s governing vocabulary.

Similar changes, formal and informal, have been implemented all over the country as organizations strive to be more inclusive. Many restaurants encourage the use of “server” rather than “waiter” or “waitress.” Chairmen and chairwomen have unified as chairpersons. Even news outlets have begun to adopt changes in their style guides.

The argument against it? Many conservative critics oppose de-gendering language in general, but few of them have spoken out about this in Philly when it comes to this ballot measures.

If passed, all official references would change to “councilmember.” It’ll probably take longer for the change to be adopted in everyday conversation. People have been saying “councilman” and “councilwoman” for eons, both in and outside of City Hall, and those habits are hard to break.

It’s unclear what happens to related phrases like councilmanic prerogative — the controversial tradition that gives Council unchecked power over real estate development. Other ways we regularly refer to the legislative body (like simply saying “Council”) are already gender neutral and won’t be impacted by the measure.

Who’s for it and who’s against it?

Councilman Derek Green sponsored the legislation and it passed unanimously among all councilmembers. Some old-school elected officials may secretly begrudge the change — and could even vote against it in the privacy of the booth — but on the record at least, this measure has generated little opposition.

What other questions are on the ballot?

Access the full Billy Penn procrastinator’s guide to the May primary election here.

Want some more? Explore other Election 2019 stories.

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City Council