Sheila Michaels, feminist who popularized the term 'Ms.', dies at 78

Ever wonder why we use "Ms.'' when addressing a woman? It's all thanks to a feminist who made the personal political. 

Sheila Michaels, who helped popularize the term 'Ms.,' died on June 22 of acute leukemia, the New York Times reported in an obituary.

Michaels began using 'Ms.' after seeing the term on a mailing label of her roommate's Marxist newspaper in 1961. Michaels thought it was a spelling error. It wasn't: The newspaper was already ahead on using "Ms.," which gave Michaels an idea.  

"No one wanted to claim me, and I didn't want to be owned," Michaels told the Guardian in 2007. "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. The whole idea came to me in a couple of hours. Tops."

In the early 1960s, Michaels' "Ms." proposal was met with little attention from other feminists. Even Mari Hamilton, her roommate who received the newspaper addressed with "Ms.," told Michaels, “‘Oh, Sheila, we have much more important things to do,’" Michaels recalled in 2016

It wasn't until 1969, when Michaels introduced the term on a New York radio broadcast, that 'Ms.' started to catch on to the public. When the 50th anniversary of women's suffrage was marked with the Women’s Strike for Equality, the term became a small yet powerful form of protest in the feminist movement. 

Activist Gloria Steinham soon used the term "Ms." to name her feminist publication, Ms. Magazine, in 1972, catapulting the term to the forefront of mainstream media. Despite the word's widespread use, "Ms." was slow to catch on in some media circles; the New York Times didn't formally adopt the term until 1986. 

The word 'Ms.' can be traced back to the 1760s, when William Shakespeare used "Ms." as an abbreviation for  "Mistress." Through the years, "Miss" mostly referred to young girls and unmarried women. "Mrs." was typically reserved for married women, but widows and divorcees also used the term.

The first push for a marriage-neutral "Ms." came in a 1901 edition of the Springfield Republican

"What is needed is a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation, and what could be simpler or more logical that the retention of what the two doubtful terms [Miss and Mrs.] have in common.

"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."

Decades later, a young Michaels helped universalize the term.

Michaels dedicated her life to the advancement of civil rights, where she was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality and a field secretary with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She also worked as a New York cab driver, a oral-historian, newspaper editor and co-owned a Japanese restaurant with her then-husband Hikaru Shiki. They later divorced. 

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

Michaels is survived by her half-brother, Peter London. 

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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