Civil-rights organizer and feminist activist Sheila Michaels, who came to be known as the woman responsible for bringing the honorific “Ms.” into cultural prominence, died on June 22 in Manhattan. She was 78.
Though Michaels asserted over the years that she was not the first to coin the term “Ms.” (it dates as far back as 1901), bringing the honorific to the forefront during the ‘60s was a quiet crusade for Michaels, who saw its alternatives “Miss” and “Mrs.” as limiting and sexist. From the New York Times’ obit of Michaels:
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. Ms. Michaels held a rather dim view of marriage, she said, partly as a result of her mother’s experiences both in and out of wedded matrimony.
Michaels told the Guardian in 2007 that she had been seeking “a title for a woman who did not ‘belong’ to a man,” and despite pushback from other feminists who saw the title as the least of their worries, Michaels continued fighting. In a radio interview in 1969, she raised the idea of cementing the honorific alongside Miss and Mrs., emphasizing the pronunciation of her name as “Miz Michaels.”
Only two years later, Gloria Steinem took the title as the name of the publication she co-founded, originally published as an insert inside New York Magazine. Since then, the title has become as ubiquitous as “Miss” and “Mrs.” and Michaels’s longtime crusade, which began when she thought the honorific on a piece of mail sent to a colleague by a Marxist publication was a typo, has been won.