Remembering Sheila Michaels, Champion of “Ms.” and Equality

The term “Ms.” first appeared in print in a Massachusetts newspaper in 1901. The next defining moment for the honorific was the founding of Ms. magazine in 1972. How did this once little-known word become not just a common and even standard honorific for women but a milestone in the fight for women’s autonomy and equality?

For that, we have Sheila Michaels to thank.

Michaels, who passed away last month on June 22 at 78, was a champion for women’s equality—and an insistent advocate for the adoption of “Ms.” not just in the feminist movement, but the mainstream.

“It was still problematic,” remembers Ms. magazine’s first editor, Suzanne Braun Levine in a WNYC podcast commemorating the 40th anniversary of the publication of Ms. “When I got there, it was still a word people were having trouble with. People would say “M-S” and people would think ‘multiple sclerosis,’ or they would say ‘Muuz,” or “Meez,” as if it was some Southern term.” She adds, “it was easy to make fun of. It took on a lot of attitude.”

Michaels discovered the honorific in 1961 on a Marxist magazine belonging to her housemate and at first believed it to be a typo. But upon further investigation, she became attracted to the idea of a title for a woman that did not “belong” to a man. In an interview with the Guardian 10 years ago, she explained that as a feminist and child of unmarried parents, the “whole idea [of using a label that would not indicate marital status] came to me in a couple hours. Tops.”

After contemplating the potential in introducing a new honorific for women, she recalled thinking “Wonderful! ‘Ms.’ is me!” At a time when a married woman couldn’t even get a loan without her husband’s signature, and a single woman was judged for her lack of a husband, it was evident to Michaels that a new term needed to be adopted so women wouldn’t encounter social barriers due to their marital status.

Initially, she found it frustrating that no one wanted to use “Ms.” as an honorific. “No one wanted to hear about it,” she said in the same interview. “There was no feminist movement in 1961, and so no one to listen. I couldn’t just go ahead and call myself ‘Ms.’ without spending every hour of every day explaining myself and being laughed at, to boot. I had to learn to be brave.”

Steinem first heard of the term after a friend told her about an interview  with Michaels on New York FM radio station WBAI in 1969. At the time, she was looking for the name for what would become Ms. magazine. After hearing the term, Steinem began to “forcefully” bring this label to “visibility,” according to Betsy Wade, the first woman to be a copy editor for the New York Times. “She says she’s going to address all of her communications to women using the honorific ‘Ms.'”

Steinem’s adoption of the honorific and the founding of Ms. three years later marked the turning point for the use of “Ms.” in the general public. And Michael’s moment of victory after years of attempting to bring this little-known archaic term into popular usage.

It would take 14 years after the founding of Ms. magazine for the honorific to be adopted by the New York Times. On the day it appeared on the front page in 1986, an editor’s note read: “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.”

As Ms. celebrates its 45th anniversary, we salute Michaels for having the courage to champion an honorific that defined women as people—instead of by their relationships to men. Michaels’ commitment to bringing “Ms.” into the public eye was the first of many fights for the modern feminist movement, and as Ms. commits to continuing to fight for full equality for another 45 years—and beyond—we honor her memory.

Rest in peace, Ms. Michaels.

Micaela Brinsley is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a rising sophomore at Smith College. Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, she is a feminist theatre artist, activist and writer with a background in labor and tenants’ rights. Passionate about social justice, she is an avid conversationalist committed to making the world a more just and inclusive place. You can contact her at mbrinsley [at] msmagazine.com.

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Comments

  1. I’m glad to see Sheila Michaels getting some recognition. However i wish the article had touched on her achievements in the Civil Rights movement, in both SNCC and CORE, her feminist activism at the very beginning of the second wave, and her scholarship in ancient Jewish women’s history. You can read more about both of these in papers she wrote that are open source on this page: http://independent.academia.edu/SheilaMichaels (You have to register to download but it’s quick and free.) You’ll see what a great writer she was, how witty and bold, and get a taste of what women activists went through.

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