CHATHAM – Traditions die hard here, but after more than 300 years, the town's chief policy making body will no longer be known as the board of selectmen.
Last Wednesday, special legislation signed by Gov. Charlie Baker officially changed the group's name to the Chatham Select Board.
Town meeting passed a resolution to change the title in May 2019. The citizen's petition that brought abut the change was filed by residents Florence Seldin and Debbie Aikman ahead of last year's 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Last Aug. 18, on the 100th anniversary of the Amendment, the select board voted unanimously to submit special legislation to amend the town's home-rule charter to reflect the new name. The bill was filed by State Rep. Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown, with support of Senator Julian Cyr, D-Truro, in September.
Chatham joins more than 100 communities across the state, and seven others on the Cape, in adopting the select board title.
Removing the gender-specific name is “an evolution” that brings the title into the 21st century, said Select Board Chair Shareen Davis.
“Often history has been about his-story, very rarely about her story,” she said. “This sort of levels the playing field a little bit” and “truly identifies us as an entity.”
Seldin, a former board member, noted that Chatham has only has a handful of female members of the select board in its 308-year history, and she hoped the name change would encourage more women to seek the office and participate in town government.
“We felt that it sends a message that the board is not just for men, but for all people,” she said. That's an important message, especially today, when gender designation is an important part of many people's lives. “I see perhaps the younger generation cares more about it and that it does mean that more and more of them will participate in government.”
Chatham's board was initially cool to the name change, voting in January 2019 to retain the board of selectmen title. But just a few months later, when Seldin and Aikman presented their non-binding petition, three members changed their position, including Jeffrey Dykens, who said he'd received “quite a bit of feedback” after opposing the change. The board voted 3-2 to support the petition, which passed town meeting by more than a two-thirds majority.
Davis had initially opposed the change, arguing that selectman, like fisherman, was a generic term. But, she said, when she stepped back and looked at the issue, it was time for a change.
“Identity is a personal issue,” she said. “It shouldn't be an institutional issue.”
Women have been a part of Chatham town government for more than a century. In 1892, Ellen Perry was named to the Eldredge Library Board of Trustees, and women have held numerous posts over the years. Virginia Harding was the first woman to run for selectman; in 1951 she received 88 votes. A woman wasn't elected to the board until Josephine Ives took office in 1988. Since then, five other women have been elected to the board: Douglas Ann Bohman, Eileen Our, Debbie Connors, Seldin and Davis.
Today, Chatham has a female town manager and many key department positions are occupied by women.
For some people, the change may be difficult, Seldin said. “Traditions die hard,” she said. “There will certainly be many people who forever more say that it's the board of selectmen.”
“That's their choice,” Davis added. The title select board will communicate “how inclusive and diverse our town government is and can be,” she said.