piece of puzzle in story of 'Ms.'
feminist reveals her part in now common form of address
By ANGELA JEFFS
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.
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.
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.
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.'
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."
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.
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
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.
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!
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
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
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."
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!"
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.'
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."
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 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.
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."
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
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
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.
Michaels can be contacted by e-mail at SheMichael@aol.com
information on purchasing "Sex, Age and the Last Caste," which
anticipates what is likely to happen over the next century using Hindu,
Chinese and Western ideas about the evolution of history, contact Larry
Taub by e-mail via email@example.com or order through the
publisher: Clear Glass Press, 62 Stanton Street, San Francisco, CA 94114
Japan Times: Nov. 5, 2000
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