Unless you’re a scholar of the minutiae of feminist history, Sheila Michaels is not exactly a household name. But, it can be argued that at least three generations of women have benefitted from her legacy — the rescission of the necessity to identify your marital status in the most rudimentary of social transactions.
That is to say, Michaels is credited with the broad acceptance of the honorific Ms., as an addition to (or replacement for) the binary choice of Miss or Mrs.
In her obituary in the New York Times, with which she cooperated before her death, they cited a 2007 interview in which she said she’d been looking for an alternative to Miss or Mrs. in part because she felt one identified her as belonging to her stepfather — who had disowned her because of her work in the civil rights movement — or to a husband she didn’t have and wasn’t sure she wanted. “No one wanted to claim me, and I didn’t want to be owned,” she said.
But in the early 60s, when she first encountered the honorific on her then-roommate’s Marxist mailer, nobody in the women’s movement cared about fighting such a seemingly small battle. So, for years, Michaels adopted both the honorific and the necessity of explaining it to essentially every single person she encountered — until, on a feminist radio program in 1969, she brought it up. From there, feminists started to pay attention, including Gloria Steinem who said she chose the honorific for her feminist magazine, launched in 1972, based on Michael’s advocacy. (And Mary Thom, one of Ms.’s early editors, told the Guardian in 2007, “I adopted Ms. from the first time I heard it. And since the title was designed for bureaucracy it was accepted immediately by bureaucracy.”)
The vaunted New York Times, however, refused to use Ms. until 1986, arguing that it would unnecessarily confuse readers.
It’s hard to imagine in America in 2017, in a certain way, what it was like to be a woman and have to hew to the single-married binary in nearly every interaction with government and all but the closest friends. It’s hard to imagine being identified by newspapers first by your marital status and then by your name, to be introduced to strangers as an appendage to someone else’s name. It can be hard to remember a time when the honorific Miss became something less-than-honorable (usually starting in your mid-twenties) because it identified to people that you weren’t married, and to be unmarried and of a certain age was a fate akin to dying in a terrorist attack. It can be hard to imagine what it feels like to vaunt beyond the poisoned territory of Miss and into the promised land of Mrs., only to then wonder if people really remember your first name at all, and to realize that it’s the only piece of personal identification still truly yours.
And it’s hard to imagine how exhausting and lonely it must’ve been for Michaels in the 1960s to introduce herself as Ms. Sheila Michaels to everyone she met, and then explain what Ms. was at all, including to other feminists.
But because Michaels did, the rest of us don’t have to. Kids in the 70s and particularly the 80s were taught — or picked up, as the honorific went into broader usage — that it was both an option and, if you didn’t know a woman’s marital status, quite possibly the more polite option. It’s since become the more standard option and, in many ways, the more default option; no one looks askance if you identify as Ms., or asks why you don’t just admit whether or not you’re married. It’s an option on all kinds of forms; it’s an introduction for women on stages and at social occasions.
We might still have to contend with Mrs., but because of Michaels, Miss is slowly going out of use in America. It might have seemed unimportant to feminists in the 60s who were trying to tackle what seemed like the more pressing challenges to women’s autonomy, but it took one stubborn woman not willing to give up her right to define her relationship to the world to essentially change the way that we describe many women — as Ms.