Chair, chairman or chairwoman? ‘Whatever,’ some lawmakers say

Members have some thoughts on their preferred titles

Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., arrives for a House Ways and Means Committee markup on Feb. 10. He’s not particular about the form his “chair” title takes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., arrives for a House Ways and Means Committee markup on Feb. 10. He’s not particular about the form his “chair” title takes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 17, 2021 at 6:30am

Long before she could summon billionaires from her lofty seat in Congress on the House Financial Services panel, Maxine Waters was a newly elected member of the California State Assembly introducing her first piece of legislation. “Assemblyman” was the official title for everyone in the body, and she wanted to change that.

It was shot down immediately.

“Some of the men were not happy,” the Democrat told CQ Roll Call recently. One accused her of “neutering the men.”

Waters persisted and eventually convinced her male colleagues that being called “assembly member” didn’t make them any less of a man. Four decades later, it’s a nonissue.

The skirmish had faded from her mind until early this year, when her current workplace saw a language panic of its own. The House adopted a rules package that used gender-neutral terms instead of gender-specific ones, triggering an uproar.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi touted it as a win for diversity and inclusion. Republicans blasted it as virtue signaling, even as they feigned outrage over minor tweaks to a dry internal document. (“Himself or herself” became “themself,” for example.) Democrats were policing language, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy fumed.

None of it seemed to reflect the daily soundtrack of Congress, where people are always saying things like, “The gentleman from New York is recognized for five minutes,” or, “Will the gentlelady from California yield for a question?” 

Gendered terms still run freely on Capitol Hill, a place full of traditions, titles and honorifics, plus even more excuses to use them. I started to wonder: Is gender-neutral language truly catching on here? What are members calling themselves? 

To find out, I decided to check in on the status of one congressional title that inspires a good deal of envy. I asked leaders of House committees whether they preferred “chairman,” “chairwoman,” “chairperson” or simply “chair.” Of the 21 lawmakers I emailed, just five got back to me, so we cornered a few others in the hallways of the Capitol. 

If their responses are any indication, Democrats are not in the middle of a quest to strip gender from the daily language of the Capitol — or at least not a well-organized one. 

“‘Chair’ is fine, whatever,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.

When a reporter tried to launch into a question about the difference between a living person and an inanimate object used for sitting, the new leader of the powerful Appropriations Committee rolled her eyes. “Oh my God,” she said.

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‘Just don’t call me late for dinner’

Other gavel-wielding Democrats channeled their inner ’90s teenager and also said “whatever” when asked what they wanted to be called.

“How about David?” replied Georgia Rep. David Scott, who sits atop the Agriculture panel. “Whatever they are comfortable with.”

“Just don’t call me late for dinner,” joked Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, leader of the Intelligence panel and dad of two. “I’m honestly not that particular. I really don’t have a strong feeling either way.”

The head of the House Ways and Means Committee has more taxing matters to handle than what people call him. “Rep. [Richard E.] Neal is fine with people using any ‘Chair’ title to refer to him,” said his press secretary.

Some members who responded did care, though. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas likes “chairwoman” for her role on the Science, Space and Technology Committee, while Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona changed his title to the gender-neutral “chair” when he took over the Natural Resources Committee, as part of a general overhaul of the panel’s language. 

A quick scan of official websites and press releases over the past month shows that just four House committee leaders routinely choose gender-neutral titles. Both DeLauro and Grijalva mostly go by “chair,” though gendered terms sometimes pop up. Over at the House Administration panel, Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California is the lone fan of “chairperson,” a decision carved into the name placard that sits in front of her during hearings.

Another “chair” is Oregon Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, who uses that label in written releases to the media and on the website of the Transportation and Infrastructure panel. Yet his name placard says “chairman,” and that’s the term that makes sense to him.

“If you’re talking about it generically, it’s ‘chair,’” said DeFazio, but try “chairman” to his face. “It seems simple to me. I’m a congressman, not a Congress.”

“I’m a congressman, not a Congress,” says Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Chairs vs. furniture

That formalism over “chair,” preferred by DeFazio and required by some style guides, starts to feel a bit squishy when you consider the prevalence of metonymy in our language, especially in politics. “Poll” once just meant “head,” but over time, the symbolic meaning of counting noggins to record a vote overtook the literal meaning. When we say that “the White House signed the bill,” we don’t mean that a building both gained the ability to write and usurped the president’s constitutional authority — it’s just a reference commonly used by the press (which is another metonym, and an increasingly archaic one at that). 

Committee leaders sit in the chair of power when they preside over hearings or markups. They also hold a ceremonial mallet, though somehow “the gavel” hasn’t caught on as another way to describe the person in charge.

As publishers and media groups around the country adjusted their guidance in recent decades to account for multiple gender identities, Congress made a few halting changes, too.

When Democrats took over the House in 2009, they began to back away from “chairman,” replacing it with the simple “chair” in the rules for the 111th Congress as part of a broader neutralizing of gendered terms that made hundreds of revisions. 

After Republicans reclaimed control of the House in 2011, they didn’t reverse the changes to reinsert “-man” after all the “chairs.” 

In theory, the chamber had a new tone. In practice, working in Congress still meant navigating a jumble of gendered titles and formalities. 

Since then, there has been only one “chairman” found amid the chamber’s rules, referring to the head of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, but this year’s package cut it down to just “chair,” reflecting what the Biden administration will call its nominee, Cecilia Rouse. 

That tweak was an example of what Republicans framed as political correctness run amok. On Fox News, McCarthy falsely claimed the updates meant “you cannot say you are a father, a son, a mother or a daughter.”

While the new rules use a single term like “sibling’s child” to describe what used to be a niece or a nephew, they don’t in any way ban lawmakers from using gendered words.

House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., recalls an early battle over the term “assemblyman.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Voices from the past

It wasn’t so long ago that a lawmaker went out of her way to defend the language of the past. A stickler for tradition, former Republican Rep. Helen P. Chenoweth of Idaho insisted on being called “congressman” instead of “congresswoman,” even if it didn’t match up with her gender identity. Elected in the 1990s, she chose to nod to the chamber’s history as a body exclusively for men.

Honoring whatever a person wants to be called can be the best option for Congress-watchers, but these days it can be hard to track, as it was for us in the Capitol hallways.

The names and titles we adopt can say a lot about a person and a lot about society too, said Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen. Meanwhile, language is constantly changing around us, like it was when Waters was trying to change the California General Assembly’s terms in the 1970s.

That moment coincided with a push by second-wave feminists to refer to women with a general “Ms.” over the more specific “Mrs.” for married women and “Miss” for unmarried, Tannen said.

“It was revolutionary at the time, and you wouldn’t believe the resistance to it,” said Tannen, explaining how men griped about the difficulty of pronouncing “Ms.”

“Then it became more familiar, and I don’t think anybody complains anymore,” Tannen said. “Now, the use of ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs.’ seems weird.”

According to Tannen, a similar dynamic could be playing out around the word “chairman,” which has a tangled history anyway.  

Originally, the word “man” originally just meant person, either male or female. But over the centuries, the Old English word for woman, “wif,” got added in front of “man,” and eventually morphed into the modern “woman.” With that, the once-neutral “man” adopted a male association and English had to adopt a new term, “human,” from Latin (by way of France) to cover both genders again. 

Now the morpheme “-man” could be coming full circle. When most of us say a word like “chairman,” we elide the final vowel sounds, pronouncing it more like “chairmn” than “chairMAN.” In dropping the full enunciation of “man,” we drop its gendered connotation, Tannen said. But because it’s so obvious in writing, Tannen doesn’t think it will be taken as neutral anytime soon.

She’s among those who see neutrality as a goal. “If it’s a different word for women and men, the one that’s used for women kind of implies otherness and then frivolousness — not quite seriousness, not quite the real thing,” she said. “It’s a subtle diminishment of women, if there’s a different word for them.”

Waters doesn’t see it quite that way. Like Grijalva and others, she made her own language tweaks at the committee level when Democrats regained power in 2019. She removed some gendered language in the rules for the Financial Services panel, opting for the generic “chair.” 

But Waters more often uses “chairwoman” in press releases and daily life. “It’s not a big deal. I’m comfortable with either,” she said. 

Only one term really annoys her, like “assemblyman” did in the past. “There is only one thing I don’t care for, and that is chairman.”

Chris Cioffi, Jessica Wehrman and Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.