Simple gesture signalled need for change

PUBLISHED: 17:00 31 October 2020

District councillor Eileen Wragg in her latest column references the recent debate over gender neutral language

There has been some disquiet over time which surfaced at last week’s meeting of East Devon District Council (EDDC) with a motion being put to members for gender neutral language to be used within the council.

Having been a councillor for over 24 years at all three levels of local government, I have become used to working in a male-dominated environment, but have felt mild irritation when hearing female chairs of committees addressed as chairman, or even more so as madame chairman.

I realise that the latter is probably meant as a sign of respect, but it can sound patronising and condescending, depending on the degree of pomposity of the person, usually male, who is making the address.

Many times I have been addressed as ‘young lady’, when it is clearly obvious that I am not young, in which case if the person using that term cannot recognise that, they should have gone to Specsavers! As for lady, well that’s a matter of discretion!

The reason for putting forward the motion was a growing recognition that old traditions should be discarded in the interests of equality.

EDDC’s constitution has until now used the language from the Local Government Act 1972, since when there have been huge societal changes, so it is refreshing to see that the new administration is forward thinking and wants to encourage more women to stand for election to make their contributions in our communities.

The Fawcett Society has been leading the cause, and their evidence is that only 35 per cent of councillors in the country are female, unfortunately at EDDC it is 30 per cent.

Also, one third of those nationally have experienced sexist comments, hardly an incentive for women to stand for election.

Even the chair’s chain of office has ‘chairman’ named on it, showing that only men were expected to chair the council.

For instance, the husband of one former woman chair of EDDC was given the wives’ or consorts’ badge to wear which was inscribed ‘chairman’s lady’, whereupon he blacked out the ‘y’, to read ‘chairman’s lad’!

That simple gesture lampooned outdated attitudes, signalling the need for the changes which will be happening from now on.

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