Remembering Sheila Michaels, the Feminist Who Popularized the Term 'Ms.'

How much thought have you ever given the term 'Ms.'? If your answer is not much, you're probably not alone. We see this pairing of two letters and a dot and assume it's always existed on forms beside Mr. and Mrs. and Miss. But the signifier has a shorter history than you'd imagine, one that holds Sheila Michaels -- who died on June 22, 2017 at the age of 78 -- in its center.

Michaels assumed many forms in her life -- New York cabbie, Japanese restaurateur, civil-rights organizer, newspaper editor, oral historian -- but one thing remained fixed: her unapologetic commitment to challenging entrenched misogynist and racist norms.

Her revolutionary streak revealed itself early on -- she was expelled from the College of William and Mary partly because of her anti-segregation editorials in the campus newspaper -- and became more and more pronounced as the years went on.

In 1961, an issue of a Marxist magazine News & Letters caught Michaels' eye. Addressed to her roommate, fellow civil-rights worker Mari Hamilton, the label read: Ms. Mari Hamilton. Michaels assumed the honorific was a typo, but she soon learned the term actually had roots as far back as 1901, but had largely fallen out of use. “Apparently, it was in use in stenographic books for a while,” Michaels told the New York Times. “I had never seen it before. It was kind of arcane knowledge.”

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Back then, women fell in two categories: Miss (which implied a woman was unwed and still belonged to her father) and Mrs. (which implied that a woman had finally served her function and gotten married). Both terms obscure the very person they're meant to signify with the shadows of men.

Upon discovering 'Ms.' on her roommate's mail, Michaels saw an opportunity to introduce a symbol that could serve as a solution to this identity crisis, and broadcast a reality some weren't yet comfortable with: women -- whether single, married, divorced, widowed -- are in charge of their own lives, men or no men.

But not everyone was as excited about Michael's lexical idea, not even her fellow feminists, who believed there were bigger battles worth fighting.

"It was terribly frustrating, because no one wanted to hear about it," Michaels remembered. "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."

One of the first issues of Ms.

And she remained brave for the rest of the decade, even when she was disowned by her own family as a result of her activism. Finally, in 1969, people were finally ready to hear what Michaels had been saying for so long. While representing a far-left women's rights group called the Feminists on a New York radio show, Michaels once again pitched her idea of using the term to reclaim a woman's autonomy and identity.

Around this time, Gloria Steinem was on the hunt for a name for her progressive feminist magazine, and was informed by a friend of what Michaels had said on the radio. The rest is herstory: the magazine, titled Ms., debuted in 1971, the New York Times adopted the term in 1986, and 'Ms.' is now widely-used in the English-speaking world.

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Did 'Ms.' suddenly bring about gender equality? Of course not, but every single step toward that end matters. 'Ms.' isn't just an added option on a government form; it's a rallying cry that declares, in no uncertain terms: Women belong to themselves. And we have Sheila Michaels to thank for that.

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