Sheila Michaels was widely cred­ited with per­suad­ing so­ci­ety to ac­cept “Ms.” as an hon­orific for women.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY EMILY LANGER emily.langer@wash­post.com

“Ms.” To Sheila Michaels, it looked like a ty­po­graph­i­cal er­ror when she saw the strange hon­orific, nei­ther “Miss” for the unmarried nor “Mrs.” for the wed, on a Trot­sky­ist mail­ing to her New York City room­mate in the early 1960s.

But it was not a typo, and the hon­orific had ex­isted at least since the turn of the 20th cen­tury, although it en­joyed only lim­ited cir­cu­la­tion.

In 1901, a writer for a news­pa­per in Spring­field, Mass., pro­posed “Ms.” to guard against mis­steps, not­ing that “to call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to in­sult a ma­tron with the in­fe­rior ti­tle Miss.”

The term had a cer­tain util­ity in busi­ness cor­re­spon­dence, when the mar­i­tal sta­tus of a fe­male ad­dressee was un­known. Some early fem­i­nists found it ap­peal­ing, a coun­ter­part to the mas­cu­line “Mr.” that did not be­tray one’s pri­vate life.

When Ms. Michaels saw the word, she was in her early 20s and ac­tive in the civil rights and women’s move­ments. Im­me­di­ately she saw the egal­i­tar­ian po­ten­tial of those three char­ac­ters. By the time of her death on June 22 at 78, she was widely cred­ited with spurring so­ci­ety to make room for “Ms.” — in com­mon English us­age, in the stan­dard­ized forms of of­fi­cial­dom and in cul­tural at­ti­tudes to­ward women.

Ms. Michaels died at a hos­pi­tal in New York. The cause was acute leukemia, said a second cousin, Howard Nathanson.

The word “Ms.” was per­haps first in­tro­duced to a wide au­di­ence with the found­ing of Ms. mag­a­zine by Glo­ria Steinem and other fem­i­nist or­ga­niz­ers in 1971. The ti­tle was pro­posed to Steinem by a friend who had re­port­edly heard Ms. Michaels pro­mot­ing the term on “Wo­mankind,” a fem­i­nist ra­dio show in New York.

Ms. Michaels en­vi­sioned wide­spread use of “Ms.,” but it also served a con­cern of hers in par­tic­u­lar. “Partly be­cause of my per­sonal sit­u­a­tion, partly be­cause of my ob­ser­va­tions at large, I had a low opinion of mar­riage — and cer­tainly no de­sire to marry,” she once told the Ja­pan Times in an in­ter­view. “I felt strongly about not ‘be­long­ing’ to a man — ei­ther to my fa­ther as a Miss, or to a hus­band as a Mrs.” “‘Ms.’ ”, she said, “is me!” Sheila Babs Michaels was born in St. Louis on May 8, 1939. Her mother was a ra­dio writer, ac­cord­ing to ac­counts of her life, and her bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther was a civil lib­er­ties lawyer. Her par­ents were not mar­ried, and she had sev­eral step­fa­thers, the re­sult be­ing a flu­id­ity in her sur­name, the New York Times re­ported in an obit­u­ary.

She told the Ja­pan Times that, dur­ing her up­bring­ing in St. Louis, she “de­vel­oped a cu­rios­ity about a woman known as Miz Noble who lived be­hind our house.”

“I won­dered whether this meant she was unmarried or a widow,” Ms. Michaels said. “I liked the am­bi­gu­ity.”

Ms. Michaels en­rolled at the Col­lege of Wil­liam & Mary in Wil­liams­burg, Va., where, her cousin re­called her say­ing, she was kicked out be­cause ad­min­is­tra­tors con­sid­ered her a “trou­ble­maker” and didn’t agree with her “views.”

She be­came deeply in­volved with the civil rights move­ment, work­ing with the Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Co­or­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee and Congress of Racial Equal­ity in the South. For pe­ri­ods, she earned a liveli­hood as a cab­driver. Later in life, she in­ter­viewed civil rights ac­tivists for oral his­to­ries housed at Columbia Univer­sity.

She ex­pressed frus­tra­tion at the slow pace with which Ms. was adopted, even among her most so­cially minded con­tem­po­raries, although it did even­tu­ally blos­som into wide use.

“No one wanted to hear about it,” she once told the Lon­don Guardian. “There was no fem­i­nist move­ment in 1961, and so no one to lis­ten. I couldn’t just go ahead and call my­self Ms. with­out spend­ing ev­ery hour of ev­ery day ex­plain­ing my­self and be­ing laughed at, to boot. I had to learn to be brave.”

Her cousin de­scribed her as “a back­ground per­son” in the so­cial move­ments for which she worked, a per­son for whom “the cause was more im­por­tant than the ac­claim.” But “I think it would have been nice if she had been rec­og­nized when she was alive,” he added.

Ms. Michaels’s mar­riage to Hikaru Shiki, with whom she op­er­ated a Ja­panese restau­rant in New York, ended in di­vorce. Sur­vivors in­clude a half brother.

Ms. Michaels’s cousin said that, in the 1980s, she de­vel­oped an in­tense in­ter­est in re­li­gious stud­ies. For two decades, she gave pre­sen­ta­tions at aca­demic con­fer­ences, with a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on women in the Bi­ble.

The Book of Ruth — re­count­ing the Moabite Ruth’s fidelity to her He­brew mother-in-law, Naomi, amid famine and de­pri­va­tion — was among the top­ics Ms. Michaels found most cap­ti­vat­ing. Some fem­i­nist the­olo­gians cite it as an ex­am­ple of women band­ing to­gether for sur­vival.

GARBIS PHOTO STU­DIO

In her early 20s and ac­tive in women’s rights, Ms. Michaels said she im­me­di­ately saw the egal­i­tar­ian po­ten­tial for “Ms.”

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