The Inspiring Feminist Who Gifted Us With 'Ms.' Dies At 78
Sheila Michaels started a subtle but important revolution in crusading for the term "Ms."
Without Sheila Michaels, the way women are addressed in society could very well still be stranded in a reductive state—that of being either an unmarried “Miss” or a married “Mrs.”
But thanks to the long crusade of Michaels, the use of “Ms.” as an honorific for women whether they’re married or not, has become part of the lexicon. Michaels passed away on June 22 at the age of 78, as reported last week by The New York Times.
Though the two letters and the piece of punctuation may seem subtle, Michaels—who viewed the institution of marriage with great skepticism in the wake of mother’s struggles in relationships—saw it as a rebellion against society’s demands to know whether a woman was married or not.
"I'd be damned if I'd bow to them,” she told The Guardian in 2007, saying she saw "Ms." as an identifier for a woman who “did not 'belong' to a man."
Yet despite the fiery defiance behind the activist’s mission, it wasn’t something that was accepted easily or quickly—even by her fellow feminists. After finding inspiration via a piece of mail addressed to her roommate, friend and fellow civil rights activist Mary Hamilton as “Ms. Mari Hamilton,” Michaels saw an opportunity to reclaim the term, which traces its roots back as far as 1901 in the Oxford English Dictionary.
But even Hamilton felt that there were “more important things to do,” according to an interview Michaels gave to The New York Times last year.
And so Michaels embarked solo, more or less, on what she referred to as a “timid” eight-year campaign in an interview in 2000 with the Japan Times.
Michaels’ mission with “Ms.” finally started to gain traction during the second wave of feminism in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. She made her case for the honorific in a radio interview in New York in 1969, and by the time the Women’s March for Equality in 1970 rolled around, it had gained significant traction—so much so that Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes utilized it as the name of their new—and now iconic—feminist magazine.
Women this week are expressing their gratitude for the woman who provided for the identifier that doesn’t define women by their relationship to a man.
If her "timid" crusade went relatively unnoticed while it went on, the dignity Michaels bestowed upon the generations of women that came after her isn't going unnoticed this week. Rest easy, Ms. Michaels.
Words: Deena Drewis
Photo: Gabris Photo Studio