The history of the title ‘Ms.’ is a strange, somewhat overlooked one. Though its origins are said to go back to the early 20th century, when more and more unmarried women were entering the workplace, the true birth of the abbreviated title and its radical potential are tied to the 1960s and a woman named Sheila Michaels.
Michaels, who died of Leukemia last week at the age of 78, never laid claim to coming up with ‘Ms.’ But it was she who injected the word into the highly-charged atmosphere of the ‘60s during a radio broadcast. She was appearing as a feminist—then a fringe, “far left” women’s rights group, according to the New York Times.
Her desire, she told the Guardian years later in 2007, was to come up with a way to talk about women who didn’t ‘belong’ to men.
This was a harder task than many would have assumed, and its implications were legendary. Gloria Steinem caught wind of Michaels’ broadcast later on and decided to use the honorific as the title of her new magazine, “Ms.,” in 1971.
In the new TNT drama “Will,” about the early life of William Shakespeare, one of the character, upset with Shakespeare’s addition of the not-yet-created “bedazzle” into the script, reprimands him. “You can’t just go around making up words!”
Shakespeare replies cannily: “Someone’s got to.”
For women who knew they no longer wanted to be defined by men, Michaels was that someone.