Sheila Michaels

Po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist whose one word changed the face of fem­i­nism

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - GLO­RIA TESSLER

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.


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