With two let­ters, Sheila Michaels shook the world

To me, Miss is silly, Mrs. is creepy and Ms. is nor­mal. But to each her own. The key is choice.

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Heather Mal­lick Heather Mal­lick is a na­tional af­fairs writer for Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices.

“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. The whole idea came to me in a cou­ple of hours. Tops.” Sheila Michaels


It’s just two let­ters with a dot, but it shook the world. Sheila Michaels, the Amer­i­can wo­man who pop­u­lar­ized Ms. as a re­place­ment for Miss and Mrs., has died at 78. What a life she had.

“Ms.” had been around since 1901 when a Spring­field, Mass., news­pa­per called the Sun­day Repub­li­can rec­om­mended it as a handy trans­plant from the South. Sounds good, saves time.

But Michaels no­ticed it on an ad­dress la­bel of a Marx­ist news­let­ter sent to her room­mate in the early 1960s. And a “timid eight-year cru­sade,” as she called it, had be­gun. Around 1969, Michaels men­tioned it on a lo­cal New York ra­dio show. Glo­ria Steinem was look­ing for a name for her up­com­ing fem­i­nist mag­a­zine, and in 1971, Ms. in­tro­duced it­self to the wider world.

All this in­for­ma­tion comes from a 2016 in­ter­view by the New York Times in prepa­ra­tion for Michaels’ death.

Banked obit­u­ar­ies are good things and I credit the news­pa­per, de­spite it not hav­ing used “Ms.” un­til 1986.

I don’t re­mem­ber life be­fore Ms. I call baby girls Miss and strongly ob­ject to Mrs., which has only been con­ferred on me by Ger­man ho­tel desk clerks and, strangely, Bell Mo­bile. It up­sets me to be re­ferred to by my hus­band’s sur­name.

In olden times, cou­ples were of­ten re­ferred to as, say, the Fred Smiths. He was Fred Smith, and she was Mar­garet John­son, and sud­denly she was Mar­garet Smith and then she van­ished into cou­ple­dom. It seems night­mar­ish now.

This was my view of mar­riage, as a crevasse, a turned back, a shut­down. I read An­ton Chekhov’s short sto­ries as a child, there be­ing noth­ing else to do up north — I wasn’t al­lowed to snow­shoe alone — and my view of mar­riage came from lines like this in “The Name-Day Party.”

“‘For God’s sake!’ Olga Mi­hailovna cried again. ‘Py­otr, un­der­stand, un­der­stand!’

‘Damna­tion take those vis­i­tors!’ mut­tered Py­otr Dmitrich, get­ting up. ‘You ought not to have gone to the is­land to­day!’ he cried. ‘What an id­iot I was not to pre­vent you! Oh, my God! ... Make haste and fetch the doc­tor, or the mid­wife! Has Vasily gone? Send some­one else. Send your hus­band!’

‘Py­otr, buy your­self hounds,’ she moaned.”

It was only years later that I re­al­ized what was go­ing on. Olga and Py­otr were fight­ing over money — she had more of it than he did, which he re­sented — he had re­tal­i­ated by cheat­ing on her and she, find­ing out, had gone into labour on the very day she cel­e­brated her hus­band’s given name ac­cord­ing to the Or­tho­dox cal­en­dar.

This is why you shouldn’t let your chil­dren in­hale adult literature. What was labour? I just as­sumed this was stan­dard be­hav­iour. Men tor­mented wives who pleaded for un­der­stand­ing, the wives learned “a dull in­dif­fer­ence to life” and then they were chlo­ro­formed.

And it was all about names. Her mother’s sur­name goes un­men­tioned, but Michaels was given mul­ti­ple sur­names: Michaels (her mother’s hus­band), Lon­don (her birth fa­ther), Kessler (step­fa­ther), Michaels (Kessler’s re­quest af­ter she be­came a prom­i­nent anti-seg­re­ga­tion­ist) Shiki y Michaels (hus­band) and then pre­sum­ably Michaels (post­di­vorce).

I de­vel­oped an al­lergy to the word “hus­band,” although I am cheer­fully mar­ried (to a part­ner/boyfriend/mister) and never changed my sur­name (fa­ther). Thanks to fem­i­nism, I call my­self Ms. and buy my­self hounds.

Ms. protects you from men like the talk-show host I met re­cently, whose face lit up when he learned I had chil­dren. “YOU have chil­dren?” he said. I had achieved le­git­i­macy in his eyes and he was clearly greatly relieved.

Sur­names are as tan­gled as ever. Many women now change their names when they marry, want­ing to share their chil­dren’s sur­name, an­other fret­ful thing. It mat­ters not. Even if Ivanka were a Kush­ner, she’d still be a Trump.

To me, Miss is silly, Mrs. is creepy and Ms. is nor­mal. But to each her own. The key is choice.

“I didn’t be­long to my fa­ther,” Michaels once said, “and I didn’t want to be­long to a hus­band, some­one who could tell me what to do. The whole idea came to me in a cou­ple of hours. Tops.”

And with that, Ms. Michaels, take a bow.

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