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by Bennett Muraskin
ALTHOUGH Ms. magazine is most identified with Gloria Steinem, the woman who most popularized the term “Ms.” was Sheila Michaels (1939-2017). The word enabled women to be identified as their own persons, rather than according to their marital status (Mrs. or Miss).
Michaels’ career included a variety of jobs including cabdriver, technical editor, co-owner of a Japanese restaurant (with her Japanese husband, a marriage that lasted for ten years), and oral historian. Her activism including organizing for civil rights as well as for women’s rights.
Her mother was a writer for radio serials, her father a civil liberties lawyer and the nephew of a Meyer London, a Socialist Congressman elected from the Lower East Side early in the 20th century. Michaels’ parents never married, and she did not meet her father until she was 14. Her mother, meanwhile, divorced the man who gave Sheila her surname, and married another who did not want children around, so she was send off for five years of her childhood to be raised by her maternal grandparents. She later rejoined her mother and stepfather.
She attended William and Mary College in Virginia, only to be expelled for writing anti-segregationist articles in the student paper. In 1959, she moved to New York and studied at Columbia University. She was soon working for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a prominent civil rights organization. She traveled to Mississippi in 1962 and she became a field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and later the editor of the Knoxville, Tennessee Crusader, a pro-civil rights newspaper. After she was arrested in 1963, her family disowned her. She helped organize the historic March on Washington in 1963, and participated in the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign, devoted to voter registration in the deep South. Years later she interviewed many civil rights leaders for an archive of oral histories currently housed at Columbia University.
MICHAELS first saw the term “Ms.” used in a Marxist journal in 1962. It spoke to her both personally and politically. From then on, she vigorously advocated for its adoption as an alternative to Miss or Mrs., but it did not begin to catch on until the feminist movement gained steam around 1970. When Gloria Steinem was looking for a name for the feminist magazine she was planning to found, she heard of Michaels’ use of the term on WBAI, a leftwing radio station in New York, and decided it was a perfect fit. Ms. magazine appeared first as an insert in New York magazine, then as a full-fledged magazine in 1972. “Wonderful!” Michaels recalled thinking. “Ms. is me.” But the battle was not over. It took until 1986 for the newspaper of record, the New York Times, get on board using the term. That made it official.
As a Jewish feminist, Michaels sometimes invoked the story of Naomi and Ruth in the Bible for its positive depiction of women. Toward the end of her life, she became an active member of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an egalitarian, progressive congregation in Manhattan, led by Sharon Kleinbaum, a Reconstructionist rabbi who is the partner of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.
Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books. He last appeared here with an article on the UN Partition Plan of 1947.