The power and legacy of an hon­orific

Sheila Michaels, who brought ‘Ms.’ to promi­nence, dies at 78

The Hamilton Spectator - - FOCUS - MAR­GALIT FOX

Sheila Michaels, who half a cen­tury ago, wield­ing two con­so­nants and a pe­riod changed the way mod­ern women are ad­dressed, died on June 22 in New York. Michaels, who in­tro­duced the hon­orific “Ms.” into com­mon par­lance, was 78.

The cause was acute leukemia, said Howard Nathanson, a cousin.

Michaels, who over the years worked as a civil-rights or­ga­nizer, New York cab­driver, tech­ni­cal edi­tor, oral his­to­rian and Ja­panese restau­ra­teur, did not coin “Ms.,” nor did she ever claim to have done so.

But, work­ing qui­etly, with lit­tle ini­tial sup­port from the women’s move­ment, she was mid­wife to the term, ush­er­ing it back into be­ing af­ter a decades-long slum­ber — a process she later de­scribed as “a timid eight-year cru­sade.”

“Ap­par­ently, it was in use in steno­graphic books for a while,” Michaels said in an in­ter­view for this obit­u­ary in 2016. “I had never seen it be­fore: It was kind of arcane knowl­edge.”

Dates back to 1901

Ac­cord­ing to the Ox­ford English Dic­tio­nary, “Ms.” is at­tested as far back as 1901, when The Sun­day Repub­li­can, a Spring­field, Mas­sachusetts, news­pa­per, wrote:

“The ab­bre­vi­a­tion ‘Ms.’ is sim­ple, it is easy to write, and the per­son con­cerned can trans­late it prop­erly ac­cord­ing to cir­cum­stances. 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.”

In his 1949 book, “The Story of Lan­guage,” lin­guist Mario Pei wrote, “Fem­i­nists ... have often pro­posed that the two present-day ti­tles be merged into ... ‘Miss’ (to be writ­ten ‘Ms.’), with a plu­ral ‘Misses’ (writ­ten ‘Mss.’).”

But for gen­er­a­tions, un­til Michaels in­voked it in a ra­dio broad­cast, “Ms.” lay largely dor­mant.

Michaels first en­coun­tered the term in the early 1960s. She was liv­ing in Man­hat­tan, shar­ing an apart­ment with an­other civil-rights worker, Mari Hamil­ton.

One day, col­lect­ing the mail, she hap­pened to glance at the ad­dress on Hamil­ton’s copy of News & Let­ters, a Marx­ist pub­li­ca­tion. It read: “Ms. Mari Hamil­ton.”

Think­ing the word was a ty­po­graph­i­cal er­ror, she showed it to Hamil­ton. No, Hamil­ton told her: It was no typo. The Marx­ists, at least, ap­peared to have had a han­dle on “Ms.” and its his­tor­i­cal mean­ing.

For Michaels, some­thing in that odd hon­orific res­onated.

Grow­ing up in St. Louis, she had known women who were called “Miz” So-and-So — a re­spect­ful generic used tra­di­tion­ally there, as it also was in the Amer­i­can South.

“It was sec­ond na­ture to me,” she said in 2016, re­call­ing the term’s fa­mil­iar sound.

Ar­dent fem­i­nist

An ar­dent fem­i­nist, she had long dreamed of find­ing an hon­orific to fill a gap in the English lex­i­con: a term for women that, like “Mr.,” did not trum­pet its sub­ject’s mar­i­tal sta­tus.

Her mo­tives were per­sonal as well as po­lit­i­cal. Michaels held a rather dim view of mar­riage, she said, partly as a re­sult of her mother’s ex­pe­ri­ences both in and out of wed­ded mat­ri­mony.

The daugh­ter of Alma Weil Michaels, a writer for ra­dio se­ri­als, Sheila Babs Michaels was born in St. Louis on May 8, 1939. She was given the sur­name of her mother’s hus­band, Bill Michaels, though he was not her fa­ther.

Her bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther was her mother’s lover, Ephraim Lon­don, a noted civil-lib­er­ties lawyer, whom Sheila did not meet un­til she was 14. When Sheila was still very young, her mother di­vorced Bill Michaels and mar­ried Harry Kessler, a met­al­lur­gist.

Harry Kessler did not want a child around, and so for five years, be­tween the ages of about 3 and 8, Sheila was packed off to live with her ma­ter­nal grand­par­ents in New York. Later re­join­ing her mother and step­fa­ther, she was known as Sheila Kessler.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from high school in St. Louis, she enrolled in the Col­lege of Wil­liam and Mary, in Wil­liams­burg, Vir­ginia. She was ex­pelled in her sopho­more year, partly, she said, for her anti-seg­re­ga­tion­ist ed­i­to­ri­als as a mem­ber of the board of the cam­pus news­pa­per.

In 1959, she moved to New York, where she went to work for the Congress of Racial Equal­ity. In 1962, she worked with the or­ga­ni­za­tion in Mis­sis­sippi, where she also be­came in­volved with the Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Co­or­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee.

Named a field sec­re­tary for SNCC the next year, she worked in Ten­nessee as an edi­tor of The Knoxville Cru­sader, a civil-rights news­pa­per. Her co-edi­tor was Mar­ion S. Barry Jr., the fu­ture mayor of Wash­ing­ton.

Civil-rights work

Her civil-rights work did not sit well with her fam­ily. Af­ter she was ar­rested in At­lanta in 1963, they dis­owned her: Her step­fa­ther had clients in the South. At their re­quest, she for­sook the name Kessler and be­came Sheila Michaels once more.

Dur­ing th­ese years, Michaels was seek­ing, as she told The Guardian, the Bri­tish news­pa­per, in 2007, “a ti­tle for a woman who did not ‘be­long’ to a man.”

“There was no place for me,” she con­tin­ued.

“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.”

On see­ing the fate­ful mail­ing to her room­mate that day in the early ’60s, she won­dered whether those two in­com­pat­i­ble con­so­nants might solve her prob­lem. “The whole idea came to me in a cou­ple of hours. Tops,” she told The Guardian.

Sur­pris­ing as it seems now, Michaels’ pro­posal met with lit­tle in­ter­est from other fem­i­nists.

The mod­ern women’s move­ment was then in em­bryo: Betty Friedan’s sear­ing non­fic­tion book, “The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique,” widely cred­ited with hav­ing been its cat­a­lyst, would not ap­pear un­til 1963.

In the early ’60s, many women on the front lines felt that there were big­ger battles to be waged. Even Hamil­ton, whose news­let­ter had moved Michaels to ac­tion, was un­per­suaded at first.

“She said, ‘Oh, Sheila, we have much more im­por­tant things to do,’” Michaels re­called in 2016.

Ra­dio-show mo­ment

Then, in about 1969, Michaels ap­peared on the New York ra­dio sta­tion WBAI as a mem­ber of the Fem­i­nists, a far-left women’s rights group.

Dur­ing a quiet mo­ment in the con­ver­sa­tion, she brought up “Ms.”

“When the ra­dio in­ter­viewer asked about the pro­nun­ci­a­tion,” she re­called in an in­ter­view in 2000, “I an­swered, ‘Miz.’”

Not long after­ward, when Glo­ria Steinem was cast­ing about for a name for the pro­gres­sive women’s mag­a­zine she was help­ing to found, she was alerted to Michaels’ broad­cast.

The mag­a­zine, ti­tled Ms., made its de­but in late 1971 as an insert in New York mag­a­zine; the first stand­alone is­sue ap­peared the next year. The hon­orific has since be­come ubiq­ui­tous through­out North Amer­ica, Bri­tain and the English-speak­ing world. (The New York Times, how­ever, for­mally adopted its use only in 1986.)

A long­time res­i­dent of the Lower East Side of Man­hat­tan, Michaels also had a home in St. Louis.

Her mar­riage to Hikaru Shiki, a chef with whom she ran a restau­rant in Lower Man­hat­tan in the 1980s, ended in di­vorce. (She was known dur­ing their mar­riage as Sheila Shiki y Michaels.)

Her im­me­di­ate sur­vivors in­clude a half brother, Peter Lon­don.

In the end, Michaels leaves a legacy both minute and mo­men­tous: two con­so­nants and a small dot — three char­ac­ters that for­ever changed English dis­course.

The power of those char­ac­ters was some­thing she rec­og­nized al­most from the start, as she told The Ja­pan Times, an English-lan­guage news­pa­per, in 2000.

“Won­der­ful!” she re­called think­ing, on learn­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of the word on that cu­ri­ous ad­dress la­bel. “’Ms.’ is me!”

“When the ra­dio in­ter­viewer asked about the pro­nun­ci­a­tion, I an­swered, ‘Miz.’”


Half a cen­tury ago Sheila Michaels, wield­ing two con­so­nants and a pe­riod, changed the way mod­ern women are ad­dressed,


In the 1960s Sheila Michaels in­tro­duced the hon­orific “Ms." into com­mon par­lance.

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