Maine appears to be the leading the way in northern New England with its recent adoption of gender-neutral terms for town governing boards and the people elected to serve on them.

With the signing into law of LD 1522 in June, terminology that dated back to the 1600s is gone. We now have town “select boards” rather than “boards of selectmen,” and those elected to them now are “municipal officers.” Gone, too, are “overseers of the poor,” a Dickensian term now reduced to just “overseer,” and an “alderman” now is also a “municipal officer.” First and second selectmen are now “chair” and “vice chair” of the select board.

Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont are behind us. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, from which we inherited our 17th-century municipal governmental structure, is changing terminology a town at a time. According to the Massachusetts Municipal Association, as of April about 100 of the 292 Bay State towns had officially switched from “selectmen” to “select board members.”

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Selectmen’s Association went gender-neutral a year ago and changed its name to the Massachusetts Select Board Association.

In Vermont the term “selectboard,” as one word, is widely used, but “selectman” still appears in state law.

Like Massachusetts, New Hampshire towns, too, seem to be approaching the issue individually. The Conway Daily Sun reported a planning board member’s suggestion in March that the Conway Selectmen should be renamed the Conway Selectboard. She pointed out that the term “selectman” dates back to 1635. As towns grew, they would elect prominent men to serve on an executive board, she said, but times have changed markedly since then. Despite her arguments, the lone woman on the Conway board said she liked being called “selectman,” and the board voted unanimously to follow tradition.

In 2018, a bill before the Maine Legislature proposed to change “selectman” and “selectmen” to “selectperson” and “selectpersons.” It died between the two houses on March 22 of that year. We’re kind of glad it did.

Most journalists gag on “persons” (from a stylistic standpoint, we say “people”), but the legal changes here come as a relief. Newspapers are expected to use the legal terminology, and in Maine, no matter what terms a local government uses, we are required to use the statutory terms, which formerly were “board of selectmen” and “selectman.” As towns experimented with name changes, confusion reigned. Town websites might say “Board of Selectmen” in a navigation bar and elsewhere refer to the governing body as a “Select Board.” Many town reports and town warrants, which are historical documents, have mixed the terms.

Indeed, Rep. Vicki Doudera, D-Camden, Rockport and Islesboro, found a great deal of confusion at the municipal level as she researched the issue in the course of writing her bill. She also found towns that had abandoned their efforts to embrace gender-neutral terminology out of fear it might not be legal. Bearing that out, Carolyn Ball, Ph.D., professor emerita of Policy, Planning and Management at the Muskie School of Public Service, told legislators in her testimony on LD 1522, “Our towns have been reluctant to use the term, select board, in ordinances because state law uses the term selectmen. Even when the term has been used in our communities, the media have been reluctant to use the term despite the fact that our communities have had women on their boards for years.”

A scan of 24 Waldo County town websites — excepting Belfast, which has a City Council, and Winterport, which has a Town Council — shows a mish-mash of terminology. Fourteen of the towns have boards of selectmen. Five are using a combination of terms — select board and selectmen or board of selectmen — on their town websites and in meeting minutes. Seven other town governments call themselves select boards or selectboards with gender-neutral terms (chair, vice chair) for members. Three call their board members selectpersons. Islesboro has a select board with a chair, a vice chair and three members.

Of those 74 elected town officials, 30 (40.5%) are women, many of them designated “selectman.”

History and tradition have great meaning for many of us, and the absence of change in terminology in 17 of our towns suggests that residents and elected officials are content with the historical titles. However, rampant confusion elsewhere, together with the efforts of many Maine towns to change with the times, argue that LD 1522 is a law whose time has come. We hope Waldo County municipalities will embrace it. For a long time we have had police officers, not policemen; firefighters, not firemen; mail carriers, not mailmen. Women serving in our local governments deserve the same respect.