Political activist whose one word changed the face of feminism
IF THE world can be changed with a word, then American feminist Sheila Michaels, who has died aged 78, had a role in it. Fifty years ago Michaels popularised the honorific Ms, which she thought was a typo when she first saw it on a Marxist magazine address label. But this was no mistake. It was the assertion that a woman belonged to herself and should not be defined by marriage. However, the battle to liberate women from “belonging to their menfolk” became more a “timid eight year crusade,”she admitted.
In 1969 Michaels introduced the default address form to the liberal New York FM radio station WBAI and as a result, Gloria Steinem adopted Ms as the title of the women’s magazine she co-launched in 1971 .The first issue sold out in eight days. Arguably Michaels’ greater coup was that soon after publication a New York congresswoman successfully legislated against women having to disclose their marital status on federal forms. But it was not until 1986 that the New York Times accepted Ms into common currency.
The idea came to her in a Eureka moment when she proclaimed: “Ms is me!”
Michaels was the daughter of playwright Alma Weil (then married to salesman Bill Michaels) and lawyer Ephraim London. They did not marry each other. Her mother’s second husband was metallurgist, Harry H. Kessler, and Sheila was sent to the Bronx to live with her maternal grandparents. But at eight she returned to her mother and adopted Kessler’s surname.
In 1957, she graduated from high school in St. Louis and attended the College of William & Mary but was expelled partly for writing anti-segregationist articles for the student newspaper. She worked briefly for a local TV station before moving back to New York in 1959 and studying mythology at Columbia University. Her innate activism led her to interview members of the Congress for Racial Equality as an oral historian. She also campaigned for civil rights in Jackson, Mississippi and spent 10 years as a taxi driver in New York City publishing her observations for New York magazines. But her political activism displeased her mother and stepfather, who disowned her, forcing her to revert to the name Michaels.
She was arrested in 1963 during a civil rights demo in Atlanta, but while in Istanbul in 1968 she was infuriated at missing the feminist protest at the Miss America Contest. She married the chef Hikaru Shiki, running a Japanese restaurant in Lower Manhattan with him in the 1980s. But they divorced.
Michaels recently taught bible studies to women in synagogues, helping generate an oral history of nonviolent activism. The use of feminist to replace women’s liberationist, and sexist instead of male chauvinist pig, are attributed to
her. Her book 7 Reasons to Be Grateful You’re the Mother of a Tweenager was
published in 2007.
Sheila Babs Michaels; born May 8, 1939. Died June 22, 2017.