Sheila Michaels: Warrior for Women's Independence

Did you know that the word “Ms.” wasn't widely used until the late 1960s? Neither did I until last week, when I learned that feminist Sheila Michaels had passed away, and that she'd become famous for popularizing it! Before Sheila, all women were called either “Miss” (which meant they were unmarried) or “Mrs.” (which indicated they were married). Today, let's look at how she fought for a term that recognized women aside from their marital status.

“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.”
~ Sheila Michaels

Ever the rebel

Sheila Michaels was an outspoken, smart, equality-minded woman in an era that preferred women be sweet and silent. In the late 1950s, she got kicked out of the College of William and Mary at the age of 19 for protesting censorship of the campus newspaper. Just a few years later, her progressive views found her eagerly joining the civil rights movement, a decision that caused her family to disown her. But Sheila was a warrior, and losing her family would not keep her from fighting for the rights she knew her fellow humans deserved.

Through her work with the Congress of Racial Equality in New York, Sheila met and befriended Mary Hamilton (who would also end up having a huge impact on how women are addressed). Sheila and Mary became roommates, and spent several years protesting, traveling, and registering voters together.

Then one day, Mary received a radical newsletter in the mail, which came addressed to “Ms. Mary Hamilton.” Sheila was thunderstruck. Here was a way to address a woman that didn't instantly reveal her marital status or connect her to a man! After a little digging, she discovered that “Ms." wasn't a typo, or a brand new idea. As early as 1901, grammar lovers had been suggesting its use in regular correspondence. But it never caught on.

Sheila decided to change all that.

Partners in verbal crime

“The first thing anyone wanted to know about you was whether you were married yet. I'd be damned if I'd bow to them.”
~ Sheila Michaels

She began a one-woman campaign to ensure that any woman who preferred NOT to reveal her marital status could go by “Ms.” It was a quiet, long campaign that finally gained some traction when she gave a radio interview in 1969. Sheila spoke with New York radio station WBAI on behalf of a women’s rights group, and during a lull in the discussion, brought up the “Ms.” issue. Prominent feminist Gloria Steinem got wind of the interview, and decided to title her revolutionary magazine “Ms.” just a year later. Soon, women everywhere were insisting on using it.

Years earlier, Sheila's friend and roommate Mary had fought a parallel battle. When she'd been arrested at a protest in 1963, she'd been put before a judge who refused to call her anything but “Mary.” You see, Mary was black, and the courtroom was in Birmingham, Alabama. And, in a power move designed to make black people feel condescended to and inferior, white people in the American South had long refused to call them “miss” or “mister.” Mary would not answer the judge until he called her “Miss Hamilton.” He refused and found her in contempt of court. She was fined and thrown in jail, but the NAACP took her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor. That ruling declared that anyone appearing in court deserved titles of courtesy (also called honorifics), regardless of race or ethnicity. 

Since Mary had already fought to be called by any honorific at all, she was the perfect ally to Sheila in her fight for an honorific that allowed women to be totally independent. And together, they made history.

A tiny legacy with a huge impact

You might be surprised to hear that the feminist movement—which was extremely active during the 60s and 70s—wasn't super excited by Sheila's “Ms.” cause. They felt they had more important matters to worry about. But with Steinem's magazine, everything changed and feminists everywhere got on board.

And although something like an honorific might seem insignificant on the surface, it carries a lot of weight. Neither “Mr.” nor “Mister” indicates anything about a man besides his gender. Why should we women be identified both by gender and by marital status? Sheila Michaels recognized this inequity, and made it her business to right it. She fought so that all women could use two little letters and a period to make themselves known on their own terms. And her quiet-but-insistent fight changed how we speak about, write abou, and refer to women forever.