Ms.

When teaching 'writing emails', I always have to explain Ms to my students. They know Mr, Mrs and Miss, but in general it's the first time they encounter Ms

 

By MARGALIT FOX     JULY 6, 2017    (New York Times)

Sheila Michaels, who half a century ago, wielding two consonants and a period, changed the way modern women are addressed, died on June 22 in Manhattan. Ms. Michaels, who introduced the honorific “Ms.” into common parlance, was 78.

Ms. Michaels, who over the years worked as a civil-rights organizer, New York cabdriver, technical editor, oral historian and Japanese restaurateur, did not coin “Ms.,” nor did she ever claim to have done so.

But, working quietly, with little initial support from the women’s movement, she was midwife to the term, ushering it back into being after a decades-long slumber — a process she later described as “a timid eight-year crusade.”

“Apparently, it was in use in stenographic books for a while,” Ms. Michaels said in an interview for this obituary in 2016. “I had never seen it before: It was kind of arcane knowledge.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Ms.” is attested as far back as 1901, when The Sunday Republican, a Springfield, Mass., newspaper, wrote:

“The abbreviation ‘Ms.’ is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances. For oral use it might be rendered as ‘Mizz,’ which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike.”

In his 1949 book, “The Story of Language,” the linguist Mario Pei wrote, “Feminists … have often proposed that the two present-day titles be merged into …‘Miss’ (to be written ‘Ms.’), with a plural ‘Misses’ (written ‘Mss.’).”

But for generations, until Ms. Michaels invoked it in a radio broadcast, “Ms.” lay largely dormant.


Ms. Michaels first encountered the term in the early 1960s. She was living in Manhattan, sharing an apartment with another civil-rights worker, Mari Hamilton. One day, collecting the mail, she happened to glance at the address on Ms. Hamilton’s copy of News & Letters, a Marxist publication.

It read: “Ms. Mari Hamilton.”

Thinking the word was a typographical error, she showed it to Ms. Hamilton. No, Ms. Hamilton told her: It was no typo. The Marxists, at least, appeared to have had a handle on “Ms.” and its historical meaning.

For Ms. Michaels, something in that odd honorific resonated. Growing up in St. Louis, she had known women who were called “Miz” So-and-So — a respectful generic used traditionally there, as it also was in the American South.

“It was second nature to me,” she said in 2016, recalling the term’s familiar sound.

An ardent feminist, she had long dreamed of finding an honorific to fill a gap in the English lexicon: a term for women that, like “Mr.,” did not trumpet its subject’s marital status.

Her motives were personal as well as political. Ms. Michaels held a rather dim view of marriage, she said, partly as a result of her mother’s experiences both in and out of wedded matrimony.

...

During these years, Ms. Michaels was seeking, as she told The Guardian, the 
British newspaper, in 2007, “a title for a woman who did not ‘belong’ to a man.”

“There was no place for me,” she continued. “No one wanted to claim me, and I didn’t want to be owned. I didn’t belong to my father, and I didn’t want to belong to a husband — someone who could tell me what to do. I had not seen very many marriages I’d want to emulate.”

On seeing the fateful mailing to her roommate that day in the early ’60s, she wondered whether those two incompatible consonants might solve her problem. “The whole idea came to me in a couple of hours. Tops,” she told The Guardian.

Surprising as it seems now, Ms. Michaels’s proposal met with little interest from other feminists. The modern women’s movement was then in embryo: Betty Friedan’s searing nonfiction book, “The Feminine Mystique,” widely credited with having been its catalyst, would not appear until 1963.

In the early ’60s, many women on the front lines felt that there were bigger battles to be waged. Even Ms. Hamilton, whose newsletter had moved Ms. Michaels to action, was unpersuaded at first.

“She said, ‘Oh, Sheila, we have much more important things to do,’ ” Ms. Michaels recalled in 2016.

Then, around 1969, Ms. Michaels appeared on the New York radio station WBAI as a member of the Feminists, a far-left women’s rights group.

During a quiet moment in the conversation, she brought up “Ms.”

“When the radio interviewer asked about the pronunciation,” she recalled in an interview in 2000, “I answered, ‘Miz.’ ”

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In the end, then, Ms. Michaels leaves a legacy both minute and momentous: two consonants and a small dot — three characters that forever changed English discourse.

The power of those characters was something she recognized almost from the start, as she told The Japan Times, an English-language newspaper, in 2000.

“Wonderful!” she recalled thinking, on learning the significance of the word on that curious address label. “ ‘Ms.’ is me!”

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