When Janet Yellen was confirmed as leader of the Federal Reserve Board, she changed the title of her position from chairman to chair. Though this shocked the media, who were both elated and censorious, the term chair has been used in this sense for a very long time. Since the 1650s, chair has referred to “the person occupying a seat of office.” Around the same time the term chairman began to refer to the same position. Only 50 years later, chairwoman is recorded in a translation from Erasmus, though it took this appellation another 100 years to be recognized as an official title. The gender-neutral chairperson entered English centuries later in the 1970s.
However chairperson never really took off; its usage peaked in the mid-90s and has slid in popularity since then. It appears that chair, rather than chairperson, has been adopted as the gender-neutral term of choice, but it’s difficult to determine the usage of this sense of the word chair because this word also has other common meanings, namely the piece of furniture. Anecdotally though, in the late 20th century, some governmental positions quietly transitioned from chairman to chair, often coinciding with the appointment of the first woman in a particular role. When Laura D’Andrea Tyson was appointed as Chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers in 1993, she was commonly referred to as chairwoman in the media, though the Council’s website officially lists her as a “Former Chair,” along with all the previous leaders of both genders.
Yellen is often referred to by the longer honorific Madam Chair and seems to have embraced, or at least acquiesced to, that moniker. But this brings up another interesting example of gendered titles: Upon Rosemary Barkett’s appointment as Florida Supreme Court Justice in 1985, she inadvertently transformed the nomenclature of the entire bench by stating her personal preference for her individual title. According to the Florida Supreme Court website, Justice Barkett “did not like the title ‘Madam Justice Barkett’: She said that she was not married and did not qualify for the other definition of ‘Madam.’ As a result, Barkett announced that she would be called simply ‘Justice Barkett.’ The other Justices of the Court quickly followed suit by dropping the ‘Mr.’ from their titles.”
Other political honorifics help governmental figures escape the gender debate: senator, representative, speaker, governor, mayor, etc. But it’s unlikely that rancor around the more specific terms will end anytime soon. Though some gender-neutral forms, like flight attendant, comedian, and bartender, are permanent parts of the lexicon, others resist change like actor/actress and waiter/waitress. Recently, though, even male chairmen have been referred to by the gender-neutral chair. Current leader of the Council of Economic Advisers, Jason Furman, gets called by either title depending on the publication: chairman in the New York Times and chair in the Washington Post. Perhaps chair will be an unmarked title one day.
This leaves us wondering what other handles may be shortened. Will spokesperson become spokes? Alderman become alder? Postman become post?