Sheila Michaels, who played a key role in bringing the title “Ms.” from obscurity into mainstream use, has died at 78, according to the New York Times.
Michaels’ lasting impression on the English language was inspired by a letter to Mary Hamilton — a woman who, separately, made legal history by successfully demanding to be called “Miss.”
They were roommates and lifelong friends: The black woman who fought to be called “Miss” instead of condescended to as “Mary,” and the white woman who pushed to be called “Ms.” because it was nobody’s business if she was married.
Michaels passed away on June 22 from leukemia, according to the Times. Hamilton died in 2002 of ovarian cancer.
Ms, Miss, Neither
Ms. Sheila Michaels was born in St. Louis. She didn’t know her birth father until she was 14 and was partially raised by her grandparents, she said in an oral history. Michaels was kicked out of college at 19 after staging a protest against censorship on the college paper. A few years later, she risked the wrath of her stepfather and decided to join the civil rights movement.
Miss Mary Hamilton was born in Iowa and grew up in Denver. She, too, spent much of her youth being raised by her grandmother, according to Hamilton’s daughter, Holly Wesley. Her immediate family was passing as white, Wesley says. But Hamilton — who was half-Italian and a quarter indigenous — refused to participate.
Instead, she dropped out of the University of Iowa and joined the civil rights movement.
The two women met through The Congress of Racial Equality in New York. They moved in together around 1961, and spent the next few years living, traveling, protesting and registering voters together. (And having plenty of fun, too. “We partied a lot. I mean, we had great parties,” Michaels said in that oral history.)
The fateful piece of mail arrived that first year of their friendship and activism. It was a left-wing magazine addressed to Ms. Mary Hamilton, but it was Michaels who was struck by inspiration. Those two little letters …
“Wow, wonderful! Ms. is me!” Michaels thought, according to a 2000 interview with Japan Times.
“The first thing anyone wanted to know about you was whether you were married yet,” Michaels told The Guardian in 2007. “I’d be damned if I’d bow to them.” Going by “Ms.” suddenly seemed like a solution; a word for a woman who “did not ‘belong’ to a man.”
Michaels initially thought the address on that magazine was a typo. That’s not necessarily true, she later noted. The Oxford English Dictionary notes “Ms.” had been floated as an idea by 1901. By the early ’50s, it was used in business correspondence when a woman’s marital status was unknown.
But in everyday life, the title was obscure. Prompted by Hamilton’s mail, Michaels set off on a one-woman crusade to change that.
Her roommate was not impressed. Michaels spoke to the New York Times last year, and remembered Hamilton’s words: ” ‘Oh, Sheila, we have much more important things to do.’ “
There was plenty of other opposition, she told the Japan Times. So for the eight years, hers was a “timid” campaign, she said.
To The Supreme Court…
Meanwhile, the two women traveled through the South working with CORE and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They registered black voters, knocked on doors, marched in protests, got arrested.
Michaels’ “Ms.” campaign might have been “timid,” but Hamilton was fighting hard for “Miss.”
In the South at the time, white people would typically refer to black people by first name, at best. Titles like “Miss” and “Mr.” were reserved for white people, through the same dehumanizing logic that made a black man “boy” instead of “sir.”
Hamilton was defiant in the face of such treatment.
Michaels wrote that a southern mayor, visiting Hamilton in jail, once called her Mary as he gloated over her arrest.
That’s MISS Hamilton, she told him. “If you don’t know how to talk to a lady, then get out of my cell!” (She also demanded the jail be cleaned. And shortly after, it was, Michaels says.)
Andrew Yeager reported for NPR about the case that brought Mary Hamilton into the law books. He spoke to Michaels for the story:
“Civil rights protests in Alabama hit a crescendo in the spring of 1963. In Gadsden, a factory town northeast of Birmingham, police arrested Hamilton and other demonstrators. At a hearing that June, the court referred to her as ‘Mary.’
” ‘And she just would not answer the judge until he called her “Miss Hamilton.” And he refused. So he found her in contempt of court,’ Michaels says.”
“So Mary Hamilton was thrown in jail and fined $50. The NAACP took the case that eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled the following year in Hamilton’s favor. In other words, the ruling decided that everyone in court deserves titles of courtesy, regardless of race or ethnicity. Michaels says Hamilton was immensely proud of the case.”
” ‘I mean, a Supreme Court case, you know, decided for you. Are you kidding? This is a big deal,’ she says.”
Wesley says her mother was in a hospital bed when the decision came down, after one of several beatings she received during marches. Targeted by the KKK and other groups, Hamilton went with her family to New York, where she became a union organizer and an English teacher.
…To The Media
Michaels remained active in the civil rights movement and other causes. In 1968, when second-wave feminism rose to prominence, she promptly headed to join in women’s rights demonstrations.
Her one-woman pitch for the title “Ms.” suddenly seemed less quixotic. As an early left-wing feminist, she started bringing the idea up — most significantly, during a radio interview in New York around 1969, The New York Times reports.
Michaels made her case on the air. And apparently, it was memorable: By the time of the Women’s March for Equality in 1970, the title was seen as a feminist “calling card,” lexicographer Ben Zimmer wrote. And in 1971, when Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes were coming up with a name for their new feminist magazine, someone thought … what about Ms.?
One woman’s linguistic light-bulb was making big news. It was attributed to “anonymous,” with Michaels’ role revealed years later. But the idea behind the name resonated with millions.
As the years passed — as Michaels gathered oral histories of the civil rights era, worked as a taxi driver, married, ran a Japanese restaurant, divorced — more and more women opted for “Ms.”
Michaels said in an oral history that her feminist activism was made possible by her work in the civil rights movement.
“Most of the activists were women,” she said. “All the figureheads were men, OK, we know that. … It was the first time anybody had treated me as equal.”
“For me, that was the seeds of feminism,” she said. “If I hadn’t been in SNCC, I don’t know that I would have been ready.”