It was the American futurologist Larry Taub who rang to ask whether I was interested in writing about Sheila Michaels. So began a three-way conversation by e-mail between Japan, New York and wherever Larry was landing to promote his latest book.
Sheila, he said, was instrumental in shifting the address Ms. into common usage. Which was a surprise, because I — like many others, I suspect — had somehow always assumed that Gloria Steinem was responsible, through the founding of the magazine Ms in 1971. But Steinem never claimed it as her own invention; rather she admitted in an interview that it was during the time when she and her cofounders were in the process of coming up with a name for their new publication that she first heard the term Ms. from a friend who had heard it on the radio.
“That would have been me,” said Sheila Michaels, who has been living on New York’s East Side for over 40 years, mostly working as a writer, editor and publicist. “In 1969 I was invited to be interviewed on WBAI, a popular liberal New York FM radio station. Feminism was hot news, and the interviewer wanted a group of us to explain what was behind the movement.” Michaels had been looking for a chance to talk about Ms., so when there was a lull in the discussion, she plunged in, although most feminists were discouraged.
That interview marked a significant turning point in what Michaels describes as “a timid eight-year crusade.” The pronunciation “miz” traces back to a mid-Southern childhood. “Growing up in St. Louis, Mo., I’d developed a curiosity about a woman known as Miz Noble who lived behind our house. “I wondered whether this meant she was unmarried or a widow. I liked the ambiguity. Hence when the radio interviewer asked about the pronunciation of Ms., I answered, ‘Miz.’ “
The program was heard by women far beyond the hard-core inner circle of activists. As Michaels reminded: “Many people still don’t realize that the word ‘feminist’ simply means ‘one demanding of equal rights with men.’ The propagandist image portrayed by the largely male media at that time was far more radical and aggressive, designed to stir up mainstream antipathy to the movement.”
From that time on, Ms. caught fire with a critical mass of feminists, who suddenly realized its potential as a powerful individual assertion of feminist consciousness, as well as a tool toward active independence. Within months it was both widely accepted and being insisted upon in place of Miss or Mrs. It even began to spread among the public at large.
Dealing with a large amount of bureaucracy back in the U.K. over the summer, there was not a form to be filled in that did not offer the choice among Mr., Miss, Mrs. and Ms. Such is the widespread acceptance of the term 30 years on.
But Michaels acknowledges that Ms. has been in usage at least since 1949, when Mario Pei, in his “Story of Language, American English,” recommended it as a convenient written abbreviation of Miss or Mrs. when the status of a woman was unknown. From 1951, publications concerned with business correspondence approved Ms. as a convenient method of address for writers of business letters; it was used often.
There was of course a controversial stage. On Aug. 14, 1970, the London Daily Telegraph reported that U.S. feminists objected to being called Miss or Mrs., and insisted on being addressed as Ms. Later it was announced that the New York Commission on Human Rights had adopted Ms. for correspondence. Even so, there were many who mocked and derided the term, and they were not necessarily men!
Now 61, living in a female menagerie a trois (with Begum the cat and Madeleine the dog), Sheila Michaels explained how she awoke to the Ms. issue while working in civil rights. “It started one day in 1961 when a newspaper dropped into our mailbox addressed to my roommate. Like me, Mari Hamilton was a member of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) in New York.”
Speaking for CORE all over America, one tour took Hamilton to Detroit. Speaking to a small Trotskyist group, she had taken out a subscription to their magazine. “Now here was a mailing, addressed to Ms. Mari Hamilton. I was stunned. Never having seen the term before, it seemed to provide me with the perfect solution to a problem that had bothered me for years.”
Sheila was born to unwed Jewish parents. Her father, whom she only met for the first time at age 14, was Ephraim London, a dean of civil liberties and divorce attorneys. Her mother wrote serials for the radio. “Partly because of my personal situation, partly because of my observations at large, I had a low opinion of marriage — and certainly no desire to marry. I felt strongly about not ‘belonging’ to a man — either to my father as a Miss, or to a husband as a Mrs.”
This strength of feeling did not stop her from having close loving relationships with male relatives and lovers; she was even married for a while in the 1980s, to a Japanese. “After working as a New York taxi driver, I went traveling — to India, Laos, Korea and Japan. I met Hikaru Shiki, whom I later married, back home. His mother cried when we divorced; she’s one of my heroes — a real Oshin!”
When Michaels saw that envelope addressed to her friend, her first reaction was, “Wow, wonderful! Ms. is me!” So in 1961, she began a personal crusade, trying to persuade sister civil rights workers of all races, color and creeds to adopt Ms. as their own. How disappointing then to meet opposition. “Mari’s response was typical: ‘This isn’t the time to bring up such (women’s) issues in the civil rights movement.’ “
Michaels was in Istanbul when the women’s movement got off the ground in 1968. “Picking up a copy of the International Herald Tribune at a kiosk, I read news of the first women’s liberation demo at the Miss America Contest in Atlantic City. ‘Shit,’ I yelled, ‘they’ve started the revolution without me!’ Returning to New York, I immediately joined the movement and started my Ms. campaign. But again, other issues were considered more important. I got nowhere.”
At feminist meetings at the Southern Conference Education Fund, she continued to raise the subject, only to be told to shut up. But she was instrumental in getting terms such as “sexist” and “feminist” accepted in place of “male chauvinist pig” and “women’s liberationist.”
Over and over she was told, “No one wants to hear about Ms.” Even at meetings of New York Radical Women, a citywide federation of small women’s liberation groups, the chairwoman — a close friend who went on to write a number of books — blocked discussion of the issue. It was this lack of interest by the large majority of founding feminists that drove Michaels into a more radical corner.
“I joined The Feminists, attracted by its charismatic leader, Ti Grace Atkinson,” she explained. “We were supposed to be the farthest-out nut cases of the movement. At one point members resolved not to talk to men. But with brothers and relatives whom I adored, I balked at that one! It was as a member of this group that I went onto the radio and finally got my message across.”
Asked what drove her on when her own sex was putting her down so strongly, she reflected: “I think it was this powerful feeling that I didn’t want to be any man’s piece of property. I was never estranged from my natural father, but he would not acknowledge me. My mother’s first husband had simply dropped me after their divorce, and my stepfather would not adopt me. I guess it was these rejections that made me so very determined.”
It was not until she read Henry Fielding, an 18th century British novelist, that she realized most women of that period were addressed as Mrs. “Both Mrs. and Miss were abbreviations of ‘Mistress.’ But I had no plan to be a wife and disliked ‘miss,’ since it had contemporary overtones, like ‘mistress.’ “
According to Larry Taub, who provided much of this information, Sheila Michaels’ crusade is the missing piece in the Ms. story. Like many female innovators before her, her part would have gone unnoticed, inevitably transformed into history rather than “herstory.” It is a measure of how far we have all come that it took a man to bring her into the spotlight.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5