What sex is a Chair?

On Saturday I was introduced to the Leader and Chair of Suffolk County Council, Colin Noble. He introduced himself as the Chairman of the Council and I challenged him on the use of this term, pointing out that the term ‘chair’ would be more appropriate as ‘chairman’ suggests a male role; and perpetuates the idea that many roles in public life are held, and should be held, by men.

We had a reasonably good-natured conversation, though I did manage to point out that, as a member of the dominant hegemony, he was in a privileged position in society and possibly was unaware of the effect of terms like chairman on the wider issue of women’s representation in public life.

I tweeted about our conversation afterwards and by Sunday morning the back-and-forth debate that ensued had led to Colin Noble agreeing to take the issue to the constitution committee for Suffolk County Council. By this time my local BBC radio station had picked up the debate from Twitter, and it was the focus of the daily ‘big conversation’ radio show with DJ Mark Murphy.

If the escalation of the debate surprised (and obviously pleased) me, what surprised me more were some of the arguments used against my point. For those of you considering addressing similar issues, these may serve as useful preparation. Some of them will simply make you laugh!

  • A chair is something you sit on

Yes, but fortunately the English language is more flexible than that. We are already using the word as a verb to describe what  the person leading the agenda does, so surely it can also be the word that describes that person’s role. You can do it, be it, and sit on it while you are doing it.

  • Surely there are bigger issues?

Yes, there are bigger issues facing women in the world, such as female genital mutilation or lack of education. However, this is the issue I have chosen to address, it is a Fawcett Society issue and it relates to the MASSIVE issue that, in a supposedly model Western democracy, women are seriously under-represented in all areas of public life. Plus, it is very easy-to-change, and can be a measurable success and step towards equality.

  • It’s like when you get married and you decide what you want to be called. The person who becomes the chairman should decide what they want to be called

No. Choosing your name is a matter of personal choice. A job title should be decided by the body providing the job. And the title should be a permanent fixture. A job is about the role not the individual doing it.

  • What about hu‘man’kind?

Yes, that word contains the word man, but the word human, firstly, has more complex etymological origins and, secondly, does not refer to a job title, whereas the word chairman does. Many other job titles have been neutralized in terms of gender: fireman to firefighter, policeman to police constable for example. Why not chairman to chair?

  • These things take a long time to change

No they don’t. Any constitution can be amended.

  • What’s wrong with ‘Madam Chairman’?

Well, that’s a linguistic oxymoron.

  • ‘Chair’ doesn’t sound nice

Sorry. Nor does the word homework according to my 13 year old. Doesn’t mean we can eradicate the word. The fact that a word is not aesthetically or aurally pleasing is way too subjective an argument.

  • A man can pee standing up, a woman can’t

To be honest, I ignored that one.

Overall I am extremely pleased with the outcome of this debate. The issue has gained prominence and the County Council might actually enact change. I haven’t convinced everyone though, and while there are still people out there who think I am a “silly woman” (another argument used against me today), there is still more work to be done.




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Eleanor Rehahn
Eleanor Rehahn is coordinator of Fawcett Suffolk and also a full-time teacher teaching mainly A Level Politics, which means getting feminism into the classroom wherever possible!