Sheila Michaels, who half a century ago, wielding two consonants and a period changed the way modern women are addressed, died on June 22 in New York. Michaels, who introduced the honorific “Ms.” into common parlance, was 78.
The cause was acute leukemia, said Howard Nathanson, a cousin.
Michaels, who over the years worked as a civil-rights organizer, 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.
“Apparently, it was in use in stenographic books for a while,” Michaels said in an interview for this obituary in 2016. “I had never seen it before: It was kind of arcane knowledge.” But for generations, “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.
“It was second nature to me,” she said in 2016, recalling the term’s familiar sound.
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 both in and out of wedded matrimony.
The daughter of Alma Weil Michaels, a writer for radio serials, Sheila Babs Michaels was born in St. Louis on May 8, 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 Bill Michaels and married Harry Kessler.
Harry Kessler did not want a child around, and so between the ages of about 3 and 8 Sheila was packed off to live with her maternal grandparents in New York. Later rejoining her mother and stepfather, she was known as Sheila Kessler.
After graduating from high school in St. Louis, she enrolled in the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia. 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. 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.”
In about 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.”
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’ broadcast.
The magazine, titled Ms., made its debut in 1971.
Her immediate survivors include a half brother, Peter London.