Sheila Michaels, a feminist and civil rights activist in the 1960s who has been credited with popularizing the courtesy title “Ms.,” died June 22 in New York of leukemia. She was 78.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Manhattan’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah was at Michaels’ bedside when she died. Michaels had been suffering from leukemia.
Michaels was born and raised in St. Louis and New York. She attended the College of William and Mary, but was suspended for her political opinions and moved to New York in 1959, when she was 20. She attended Columbia University night school while working as a ghostwriter and editor.
During the turbulent 1960s, she worked for the Congress of Racial Equality in New York and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Jackson, Mississippi. She also worked to organize the historic civil rights March on Washington in 1963 and helped write John Lewis’ speech there.
In 1961, Michaels saw the typo “Ms.” on a radical newsletter addressed to her roommate and believed it offered women the potential of not being defined by marriage. She was convinced it could be an alternative to “Miss” and “Mrs.”
“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. The whole idea came to me in a couple of hours. Tops,” she told The Guardian newspaper in 2007.
The term, which had been proposed before with no success, grew in public usage after Michaels started her push, and it graced the title of the feminist magazine Ms. that was started in 1971 by Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes. It was the first periodical ever to be created, owned and operated entirely by women.
“We chose ‘Ms.’ because it could be explained and justified — since ‘Mister’ or ‘Mr.’ doesn’t communicate a man’s marital status, why should women carry ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’ as if to advertise their availability as mates?” Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a co-founding editor, told New York magazine in 2011.
In later years, Michaels worked in public relations, journalism, criticism and editing, and was a taxi driver in New York City. With her then-husband, she also ran a Japanese restaurant in New York.