NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sheila Michaels, a feminist who spread the modern usage of the title “Ms.” as a way to denote a woman’s independence, has died in New York at age 78, prompting an outpouring of tributes on social media.
Michaels is credited with having ushered back into English common parlance the honorific as an alternative to “Mrs.” and “Miss”, titles that mark a woman’s marital status.
Michaels, who lived in New York City and her native city of St. Louis, died from acute leukemia, said Howard Nathanson, a cousin, in a phone interview.
A woman of many professions - she was a civil rights activist, technical editor, restaurateur and taxi driver, Nathanson said - her push for the adoption of “Ms.” in feminist circles was at first unsuccessful.
She described the initiative as “a timid eight-year crusade” initially met with indifference by her peers until finally catching fire following a radio interview in the late 1960s, she said in a newspaper interview in 2000.
The honorific was eventually adopted by leading feminist figure, Gloria Steinem, through the founding of the influential “Ms.” magazine in 1971, according to a magazine blog post.
Though Michaels did not coin the title, it had fallen into disuse until, as a young woman in New York City, she stumbled upon mail that addressed its female recipient as “Ms.”
“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 years,” she told the Japan Times newspaper.
“(I) was looking for a title for a woman who did not ‘belong’ to a man,” she said in a 2007 interview with The Guardian.
The first known use of “Ms.” goes back to 1901, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It is used “when the marital status of a woman is unknown or irrelevant,” the dictionary says.
“Mrs.”, in contrast, is used before a married woman’s surname, while “Miss” is used “as a title prefixed to the name of an unmarried woman or girl,” according to the dictionary.
Michaels died on June 22 but the family published her obituary in a St. Louis newspaper on Thursday. She was divorced - and as a young woman indifferent to the institution of marriage, she said.
In tributes on Friday, Twitter users celebrated Michaels’ legacy.
“Language is important. She made a real difference,” wrote Christina Richards, a psychologist, in one tweet.
“MS. FOR LIFE,” wrote another user, Christine Chalifoux.
In St. Louis, Nathanson, 63, said his older cousin “was not one to crow” about having left her mark on feminism.
“I think the cause was more important to her than the acclaim,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“My daughter would refer to Sheila as her kick ass cousin,” said Nathanson. “Because she was involved in so many causes and she was fiercely loyal to them.”