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The woman who championed the ‘Ms’ honorific

Obituary: Sheila Michaels

Sheila Michaels changed the way modern women are addressed by introducing the Ms honorific

Sheila Michaels, born May 8th, 1939, died June 22nd,2017

Sheila Michaels, who half a century ago, changed the way modern women are addressed, died on June 22nd in Manhattan. Michaels, who introduced the honorific “Ms” into common parlance, was 78.

Michaels, who over the years worked as a civil-rights organiser, 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”.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Ms” is attested as far back as 1901. 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.

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.

The daughter of Alma Weil Michaels, a writer for radio serials, Sheila Babs Michaels was born in St Louis on May 8th, 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 Michaels and married Harry Kessler, a metallurgist.

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

Civil rights

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.

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.

Sheila Michaels: died on June 22nd, 2017, in Manhattan

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 1960s, 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.

Miz to Ms

Around 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’s 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.

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.