Gender, language, and democracy
by Matt Coot
In July 2017, I wrote an article about gender and how gender specific terms need to be replaced with non-gender specific terms. In that article, I wrote about how Saltash Town Council had been debating about the future of the “Mayoress’ Chain” and how it was my belief that the argument was in the wrong, as it was about whether a male mayor’s consort could wear the “Mayoress’ Chain” and how this was a breach of the Equality Act 2010. The debate was concluded with the decision to retire the chain. However, it was come to my attention that the controversial issue has been reopened but without a debate being granted.
Why do non-gender specific terms matter?
Language has been something that has fascinated me for my entire life. At every level of my education studies, I have embarked upon the exploration of language and I have been interested in how language has changed over time. Language changes for many reasons, including: societal changes, technological advancements, and the influence of other languages. Contemporary times and shifting attitudes towards different sections in society has resulted in certain words becoming redundant and replaced with terms that can be used equally for a wider range of people. We have done this most clearly with the changes regarding gender specific terms.
Policeman/police woman, landlord/landlady, actor/actress; there are, of course, many other gender specific terms that we could discuss. With the changes in language, we now refer to those working in the police as police officers. This avoids the use of gender and includes every gender with a non-specific term. Those who own land are, in the majority, still referred to with the gender specific terms, but there has been a growing change to calling them ‘land owners’ instead. As for those who act, their profession is now known as ‘actor’ no matter the gender. We change these terms for inclusion and for equality. We change these terms because that is the right thing to do.
Of course, gender specific terms are also outdated, because we are aware of gender no longer being a binary thing. Gender is non-binary. As discussed in my previous article, there are over one-hundred different gender identities that people identify themselves as being. We are no longer male or female. Gender is no longer something that is an enforced binary decision. In fact, it could be argued that “gender is not a straight line… it is a spectrum”. Therefore, why should we continue to use gender specific terms for roles that can be carried out by anyone, no matter what gender they identify as? We need gender specific terms to go the same way as the dinosaurs. Gender specificity is archaic, discriminatory, and wrong.
The Saltash Town Council “Mayoress’ Chain” Should Stay Retired
Further to the argument surrounding gender specific terms, and how society should be proud of liberal values of equality, we come to the current issue that is being stirred back up with Saltash Town Council: the “Mayoress’ Chain”.
I have been notified, by unnamed sources close to the council, that the Mayor of Saltash, Cllr John Brady, has sent an email to all councillors to inform them that he is reopening the debate that the council had less than a year ago. The debate, however, will not be a debate. Instead, the controversial mayor has declared that there will be no debate, but only a vote. However, the vote will not be carried out during a meeting, but over an online poll and for this result to be read out during the next council meeting. If you’re wondering, like I am, for the reasons behind this bizarre decision, keep reading as I will analyse the mayor’s actions later in this article. For now, I would like to keep discussing what should be the main issue here: the term “mayoress”.
In 2017, Cllr John Brady was one of the main instigators behind the debate about the “Mayoress’ Chain” and the use of it by male mayor’s consorts over the last few years, when the mayor had been female (Cllr Jean Dent and, former Cllr, Hilary Frank). The argument was that the chain should not be used by male consorts as it had been originally, and historically, gifted to the town for the use of the mayoress. This argument, however, would be a breach of the Equality Act 2010. If a mayor’s consort is forbidden the use of the chain because of their gender, it is a form of direct discrimination. There were other arguments offered, but to me this was the main problem: you cannot exclude someone from something based purely on their gender. It would have been my suggestion to change the outdated title of the chain to “The Mayoral Consort’s Chain” or simply “The Consort’s Chain”. However, the council decided to retire the chain.
The term “mayoress” is outdated. It suggests that the mayor should be male and that their partner be female. This, not only, excludes those of other genders, but it also excludes those of different sexualities than heterosexual couples. This would be a discrimination against two protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. All this from the use of one word. Change that word, and these problems vanish.
Last year, the Saltash Town Council decided to retire the “Mayoress’ Chain”. They could have renamed it, but for reasons of “historical integrity” they decided instead to have the chain retired and gifted to the local heritage centre to be put on display. This decision, therefore, literally put the chain (and, therefore, the name of the chain) where it belongs: in a museum. For as long as it continues to use that outdated and discriminatory name, it should stay in the museum.
So Why Is The Mayor Of Saltash Making Such A Bizarre Decision?
The answer to this question is a rather simple one: vanity. The controversial mayor, who is currently facing censure, has made this decision purely out of the vain choice that he and his wife should look the part. There is no other factor at play here.
From an unnamed source close to the council, I have received a copy of the email that was sent to all councillors. It is an interesting read:
Please find below a message from the Mayor. I will set up a survey poll on this which will run from Friday 25th May 2018 at 3.30 p.m. to Friday 1st June 2018 at 3.30 p.m. You will receive the separate poll email with link shortly and can vote immediately from receipt.
Please note it is your vote in the poll via the link that counts so please do vote.
Message from the Mayor:
The Mayor is asking Council to approve the return of the Mayoresses Chain to use by the Mayoress of the day. The Mayoress will be the only wearer of the chain in the future.
Dear Council Members,
Being 2 weeks into my term as Mayor, I have been amazed at the number of people Jackie and I have met who have asked why Jackie is not wearing the Mayoresses chain.
We have responded to the question by saying it is ‘ political ‘. Some people had seen and heard the media coverage surrounding the withdrawal of the chain, expressing a variety of comments from ‘ how sad ‘ to ‘ that is stupid’.
I will freely admit we were ridiculed at the time, and I was as involved as anyone else in the decision to retire the chain.
However, due to the interest from people we meet I feel it is reasonable to request approval for the chain to be returned to use by the Mayoress ONLY.
I have discussed fully with the Town Clerk my proposal. The Town Clerk has assured me that the process is correct as it is now 6 months since the item was last considered by Full Council.
I intend to put the item on the Agenda of FTC on 7th June.
A survey Monkey will be set up on Friday 25th May to run 5 days. You are asked to vote yes/no only.
The result will be announced and recorded at FTC on June 7th. There will be NO debate.
Councillor John Brady
Mayor of Saltash.”
The interesting factors within this email are that the chain would only be used by whoever is the “mayoress” and only the “mayoress”, and that the mayor has decided that there will be no debate of the matter only the online poll.
I should also note that the mayor has described that “some people” have “expressed a variety of comments”. When I was a councillor, I experienced many occasions when Cllr Brady quoted unnamed and unverified sources, who just so happened share the same views as him. When he has been asked for additional information regarding these sources, he had refused to give the information. I cannot confirm for certain that Cllr Brady makes up these opinions, but the terms of “how sad” and “this is stupid” has been used many times in the past by many of these ‘sources’ and by Cllr Brady himself. It does call into question the reliability of such statements. Perhaps if people felt strongly enough about the “Mayoress’ Chain”, they would write to the council directly.
“The Mayoress will be the only wearer of the chain in the future”
As discussed above, the term “mayoress” denotes the use by a female partner of the sitting mayor. Declaring that the use of the chain only be that of the “mayoress” is declaring that only a female partner can wear the chain. This, as already argued, is a breach of the Equality Act 2010. It is excluding those of different genders and, could be argued, as excluding those people, of different sexualities than heterosexual, from putting themselves forward for the role of Mayor. This whole issue is discrimination and should be stopped.
Why Is The Lack Of A Debate A Dangerous Thing?
As discussed, in the email quoted above, the Mayor of Saltash has decided not to allow a debate on this matter, but instead has demanded that the councillors vote on an online poll. Firstly, the online poll is fallible and could be misused by anyone with access to the link. Secondly, the lack of debate doesn’t allow for amendments to the matter, amendments that may change the use of the chain from a discriminatory one to a fair and equal one. Thirdly, this could be a slippery slope for the mayor to issue future issues like this so as to force through unpopular decisions.
Let’s take the first point of the poll being fallible. My source, who will remain unnamed, also sent me the link. I have opened the link. I am offered the opportunity to cast a vote. I didn’t cast a vote, but I could have done. The source who sent me the link is not a member of the council, they are not a member of council staff, however they followed the link and they cast a vote. Therefore, the poll is at danger of being corrupted. I do not know who else this source had shared this information with, or whether more people have a copy of the link. However, the fact remains that someone who isn’t a councillor has placed a vote on this online poll, and, in effect, has been responsible for making this online vote unreliable. On the other hand, a vote during a meeting is public and members can be held accountable for their decisions. A vote during a meeting also ensures that only members of the council vote on the matter. An online vote cannot be relied upon as a safe and secure decision made only by the council members, this has been proved. Therefore, I would urge the Mayor of Saltash to change his decision and to allow there to be a debate and vote during a public meeting.
The second issue of a lack of debate not allowing for amendments to be made is reckless. There are sixteen members of the council. Sixteen people with a variety of experiences and knowledge. Sixteen people who have been granted their position by the people of the town of Saltash. Sixteen people who should be allowed a voice to discuss matters. By shutting down debate, the mayor is shutting out the experience and knowledge of fifteen other fairly elected officials. This matter needs a debate as it can be changed to make it fairer and less discriminate. Therefore, I would urge the Mayor of Saltash to change his decision and to allow there to be a debate and vote during a public meeting.
The third point of this being the first step towards further acts of matters being taken to an online vote to push through unpopular matters is a dangerous one. Meetings of the council allow council members to debate and vote in a fair, open, and transparent manner. They can be held accountable for decisions made, and they can engage in a debate that can evolve issues to better conclusions. Meetings also allow input from members of the public, who can make a comment or ask a question by lodging it with the town clerk prior to the meeting. Therefore, again, I would urge the Mayor of Saltash to change his decision and to allow there to be a debate and vote during a public meeting.
What Can You Do?
Also, share this article with everyone you know so that more people are made aware of this problematic issue.
I will be contacting Saltash Town Council to see if they would like to make a comment with regards to this article. I will update the article with their comment as and when I receive one.
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