Sheila Michaels, the woman who campaigned for “Ms.” as “a title for a woman who did not ‘belong’ to a man,” died of cancer on June 22, the New York Times reports.
Michaels was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1939, and spent part of her childhood summers in the Bronx with her grandparents. She was expelled from the College of William and Mary in Virginia in part for writing anti-segregationist editorials while on the board of the college paper; after leaving Virginia, she moved to New York and worked for the Congress of Racial Equality. Michaels also worked with the same organization in Mississippi and eventually wound up working as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Before feminism became a marketing catchphrase used to sell tote bags and yoga pants, there was Ms., a magazine whose name came from the honorific popularized by Michaels, who mentioned it on a radio show in 1969. She first saw it on a mailing label in 1961, affixed to a Marxist magazine, that was addressed to her roommate at the time. What she thought was a typo resonated with Micheals, who explained why she latched on to the word and championed its use to The Guardian in 2007:
“There was no place for me. 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 my 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.”
When searching for a name for a then-unnamed feminist magazine a few years later, Gloria Steinem was alerted to Michaels’ radio broadcast. Ms. magazine launched in 1971 and “Ms.” as an honorific gained traction and stuck. Later in her life, Michaels also ran a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan with her husband Hikaru Shiki. The Times notes that when she was married to Shiki, she took his name as an addendum, going by Sheila Shiki y Micheals—a nice way of taking her husband’s name without completely throwing her own away. Their marriage ended in divorce. Michaels is survived by her half-brother, Peter London.