Sheila Michaels, the Feminist Who Made ‘Ms.’ Mainstream, Has Died at 78

The activist championed “Ms.” as a title that would allow women to be seen independently of their marital status

Sheila Michaels explained the power of the honorific "Ms." on the radio in 1969. Word of the broadcast got to Gloria Steinem was looking for a name for her new magazine. The first regular issue of Ms. magazine hit the newsstands in July 1972. Wikimedia Commons

Sheila Michaels did not invent the honorific “Ms.,” but she is credited with plucking it out from lexical obscurity and popularizing the title as a way for women to be defined independently of their relationships to men. As Margalit Fox reports for the New York Times, the pioneering feminist died of acute leukemia on June 22, at the age of 78.

“Ms.” first came onto Michaels’ radar in the early 1960s, when she was living in Manhattan. While collecting the mail, Michaels saw that her roommate, Mari Hamilton had received a copy of the Marxist publication News & Letters. It was addressed to “Ms. Mari Hamilton.” Michaels initially thought the word was a typo.

In reality, “Ms.” had been in use since at least the early 1900s. According to Fox, the Oxford English Dictionary traces the word back to a 1901 article in The Sunday Republican, a Massachusetts newspaper. 

“The abbreviation ‘Ms.’ is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances,” the paper wrote. “For oral use it might be rendered as ‘Mizz,’ which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike.”

But when Michaels first encountered the term, “Ms.” had not yet entered the mainstream. In this little-known word, she saw an opportunity to champion an honorific that—unlike “Miss” and “Mrs.”—would not label women based on their marital status.

During a 2007 interview with Eve Kay of the Guardian, Michaels said that she had been “looking for a title for a woman who did not 'belong' to a man.” Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1939, Michaels was the product of her mother’s extramarital affair. Her parents never married, and she did not meet her biological father until she was 14.

“There was no place for me,” she told Kay. “No one wanted to claim me and I didn't want to be owned. I didn't belong to my father and I didn't want to belong to a husband - someone who could tell me what to do. I had not seen very many marriages I'd want to emulate.”

Though Michaels advocated for the adoption of “Ms.” in feminist circles, her idea did not take off until 1969, when she appeared on the New York radio station WBAI. According to Fox, she brought up “Ms.” during a “quiet moment in the conversation” about feminism. Word of the broadcast soon reached Gloria Steinem, who was looking for a name for her new feminist magazine. When the publication was first printed in 1971, it debuted under the title Ms.

“It made sense to us from the start,” Meliss Arteaga wrote in the magazine last month. “‘Ms.’ is how you address a woman as a whole person.”

By 1986, the title had gained enough traction to be formally adopted by the New York Times. When it first appeared on the paper’s front page, an editor’s note explained: “Until now ‘Ms.’ had not been used because of the belief that it had not passed sufficiently into the language to be accepted as common usage. The Times now believe that ‘Ms.’ has become part of the language and is changing its policy.”

Though she remained devoted to the feminist cause until her death, Michaels wore many hats throughout her life. According to the BBC, she had at various points worked as a ghostwriter, editor, restaurateur and biblical scholar. She spent her later years collecting oral histories of the Civil Rights movement. Her favorite gig was reportedly cruising around New York City as a taxi driver.

Michaels’ legacy will persist in a simple, two-letter word that is now used throughout the English-speaking world to refer to women—not as wives, or as singles, but as people. 

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