‘Ms. is me!’

Sheila Michaels, feminist who helped popularize the word ‘Ms.’, dies at 78

Sheila Michaels (The New York Times -MARGALIT FOX)

Born in St. Louis and raised by her grandparents, Michaels’s lasting impact on the English honorific started with a chance meeting at The Congress of Racial Equality in New York. It was there that Michael’s met Mary Hamilton, a young black civil rights activist who later became her friend, roommate and partner in crime (literally). When one day a magazine arrived at their apartment addressed to “Ms. Mary Hamilton,” Michaels realized that “Ms.” was not only a title that described her status as an unmarried woman, but one that all single, independent women could — and eventually would use — to describe themselves.

“The first thing anyone wanted to know about you was whether you were married yet,” Michaels told The Guardian in a 2007 interview, “I’d be damned if I’d bow to them.” For Michaels, Ms. was an opportunity, one that could help define women as persons unto themselves and not “belonging” to a man. Hamilton herself had lobbied for the use of the title “Miss” when addressing black women at a time when polite titles were generally reserved for the white population.

Undated photo of a young Sheila Michaels

While the title “Ms.” first appeared in 1901 in the Oxford English Dictionary, it wasn’t until the 1950s that it found common use in business correspondence when addressing women whose marital status was unknown.  According to The New York Times, Michaels first brought up the title change during a radio interview in 1969, and went on to become what lexicographer Ben Zimmer described as the feminist “calling card” of the 1970s. Indeed, when Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes launched their feminist magazine in 1972, Ms. was the name they chose — a point the magazine’s blog acknowledged in a post about Michaels over the weekend.

Michael’s passed away from leukemia on June 22. While the popularity of “Ms.” was initially attributed to “anonymous,” with Michaels’ role only revealed decades later, her contribution is remembered as pivotal to the early feminist movement.

Read the full story at NPR.  

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