Sheila Michaels Dies At 78, Here's How She Changed The World For Women

Civil rights activist Sheila Michaels died at age 78, but only after making the title Ms. ubiquitous. She was a feminist through and through — here's her story.

On June 22, feminist, civil rights activist, New York cab driver, editor, and Japanese restaurant owner, Sheila Michaels, died at age 78 from leukemia, according to The New York Times.

She left behind a legacy. It's ubiquitous around the world when speaking to young women. You see it when filling out most forms, or even when a stranger greets someone else: "Ms."

At the time, "Mr." transcended marital status, while "Mrs." did not. At that time, "Miss" just meant that you were on your way to getting married and still belonged to your father. There was a stigma against you if you were older than 18 and not on that path. Even worse, it was short for "mistress." Her advocacy for "Ms." came from wanting "a title for a woman who did not 'belong' to a man," she said, The Guardian reported in 2007.

Sheila Michaels

The civil rights activist didn't coin the term, which dates back to a 1901 Oxford English Dictionary. She only noticed it in 1961 when a magazine addressed her roommate unusually as "Ms. Mary Hamilton," according to The Japan Times. She was struck.

When Michaels first began advocating for the title in the early 60s, other feminists in the movement felt that it was low on the list of priorities and essentially wrote her off. 

But through a "timid eight-year crusade," she did help usher it into popular language. She demanded to be addressed by it during a liberal New York radio broadcast that would later be picked up by well-known feminist Gloria Steinem. Thanks to Michaels, Steinem's magazine was titled Ms., and was first published in 1971.

Hailing from the Midwestern town of St. Louis, Michaels noticed a resemblance to the title used throughout the South, "Miz." 

With Michaels' backstory, it's no surprise that she felt there needed to be a title for women that was independent of men.

Michaels was born on May 8, 1939, out of wedlock. Her mother, Alma Weil Michaels, was a radio serials writer. Her biological father was a civil liberties lawyer named Ephraim London, but Michaels took her mother's husband, Bill Michaels' surname. As a young child, her mom divorced Mr. Michaels to marry Harry Kessler, who didn't want children and sent Michaels off to her grandparents in the Bronx. 

She would later rejoin her parents as Sheila Kessler before attending the College of William and Mary. She was expelled as a sophomore for writing anti-segregationist editorials. 

She moved to New York in 1959 to work for the Congress of Racial Equality, and later, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She continued her civil rights activism as an editor of The Knoxville Crusader.

But her family didn't like her activism, and disowned her, stripping her of the Kessler name. She changed it back to Sheila Michaels.

"No one wanted to claim me, and I didn't want to be owned," she said to The Guardian.

"I guess it was these rejections that made me so very determined," she added, when speaking to The Japan Times.

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