Thirty-one years ago today, “Ms.” was finally adopted at The New York Times.
The honorific appeared on Page 1 of The Times in 1986. According to Betsy Wade, “the top editor had persuaded the publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, that the usage was a passing fad.” The move came 14 years after Ms. launched in 1972.
When Ms. was first published, as an insert in New York magazine which sold out in eight days, we wrote that we adopted the usage “as a standard form of address by women who want to be recognized as individuals, rather than being identified by their relationship with a man.” Men had long had “Mr.”—and, with it, the freedom to be identified in the world as persons, not partners. At long last, we had “Ms.” When Ms. launched, conversations about the honorific had seeped into mass discourse. Gloria Steinem chose the name despite other options—Sojourner and Sisters among them—after prompting from Sheila Michaels, who had been pushing the women’s movement to adopt its usage.
It made sense to us from the start: “Ms.” is how you address a woman as a whole person. In a culture where women were identified on the basis of their marital status—”Mrs.” for married women and “Miss” for unmarried women—feminists began claiming “Ms.” as a way to define ourselves as individuals, not subordinates or partners. We were not defined in relation to men. We simply were.
Initially, “Ms.” used to be an abbreviation for “Mistress” and “Miss” was a shortened form of “Mistress.” It took protests, internal pressure, time and a smart strategy to persuade The New York Times to accept the form, despite “Ms.” being previously accepted by the American Heritage School Dictionary. Today, “Ms.” continues to be a title for married and unmarried women, a form chosen by feminists and non-feminists who want to be referred to for who they are, not for who they are married to. Its usage across publications is now common, if not standard.
And it’s still the rallying cry for our community—of women and men alike—who believe that women around the world should have the chance to define who they are and control their destinies.