Sheila Michaels, iconic feminist and justice advocate, dies at 78

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Sheila Babs Michaels, a St. Louis native who was an iconic figure in feminist and social justice causes, and who has been credited with coining the courtesy title “Ms.,” died on Thursday, June 22 in New York. She was 78 and had been suffering from leukemia. 

With Ms. Michaels at the time of her passing was Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, of which she was an active member. 

Shortly after Ms. Michaels’ passing, Kleinbaum said at her bedside, “A giant has left us.” Ms. Michaels was also a member of Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis.

Sheila Michaels was born in St. Louis on May 8, 1939, the daughter of Alma Weil Kessler and Ephraim London.  She spent her formative years in St. Louis and the Bronx with her mother and her beloved grandparents, Francie (Sacks) and Irving Weil.

In an email to congregants, CRC described Ms. Michaels as having been “a woman of strong principles (who) devoted her singular identity as a feminist, humanitarian, biblical scholar and civil rights activist.” 

Ms. Michaels attended the College of William and Mary, but was suspended for her political and racial opinions while on the school’s editorial board. After working in publicity for a TV station and hotel in St. Louis, she moved to New York in October 1959, when she was 20. 

Ms. Michaels attended Columbia University night school while working as a ghostwriter and editor. At Columbia, her self-designed field of study was mythology, Middle Eastern (Persian) studies and Biblical literature (which later would be her graduate field, in the 1980s). 

In 1961, she worked for Congress of Racial Equality in New York. Dave Dennis, CORE’s field secretary in Mississippi hired her to work in Jackson, Miss., where she worked with Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  She also worked to organize the historic Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963, and helped write John Lewis’ speech for that occasion.  Later she ran a newspaper in Knoxville, Tenn., the Knoxville Crusader, which was a two-person project headed by Marian S. Barry.  She also had leadership positions during the Freedom Summer of 1964.

Ms. Michaels was one of the first women to run the SNCC and CORE field offices in Mississippi during the volatile civil rights era of the 1960s.

Later she located and interviewed many other civil rights leaders, which led to the establishment of an archive of oral histories currently stored in the Columbia University Oral History Archives. 

In the New York Times Magazine’s “On Language” column in 2009, Ben Zimmer wrote that in 1961, Ms. Michaels, then a 22-year-old civil rights worker, saw “Ms.” on a piece of mail her roommate received. “In fact, she initially took it as a typo, albeit a felicitous one,” Zimmer wrote. “Fiercely independent, Michaels abhorred having her identity defined by marriage. Struck by Ms., she became a one-woman lobbying force for the title as a feminist alternative to Miss and Mrs.” 

“[I] was looking for a title for a woman who did not ‘belong’ to a man,’” Ms. Michaels is quoted as saying in a 2007 story in London newspaper The Guardian

By 1970, Gloria Steinem endorsed the term and it steadily grew in public usage (and in 1971 Ms. was used as the title of the feminist magazine started by Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes).

During her varied career and life experiences, Ms. Michael also worked as a cab driver for 10 years in Manhattan and ran a Japanese restaurant. She worked in India, Singapore, Japan and Laos, where in 1975 she worked with children who had been crippled during the Vietnam War. 

Ms. Michaels will be buried in her family plot in B’nai Amoona Cemetery in St. Louis. 

CRC will pay tribute to Ms. Michaels during a Shabbat service at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 7. CRC is located at 5020 Waterman Blvd.; the Shabbat service is open to the community.

Ms. Michaels was the sister to the late Steve Kessler, the late Jon (Jen) Kessler and the late Harvey (Lin Chen) Kessler.  She was close to her St. Louis cousins, CRC members Howard (Sarah Anne Patz) Nathanson, and Rebecca and Ariel Nathanson.

Memorial contributions may be made to CRC or to Congregation Beit Simchat Torah of New York City, or to the Visiting Nurse Service of New York City.