Email a Friend

On the occasion of Ms. Magazine’s 40th anniversary, WNYC’s Sara Fishko asks: what’s the history of that term “Ms.,” anyway? It’s the subject of today’s Fishko Files



Exploring the origins of  Ms. revealed just how much power such a short word can have. Suzanne Braun Levine – writer, activist and the first editor of Ms. Magazine – hones in on the influence of language in social change. 


Suzanne Braun Levine

It’s the essence of any movement; the first thing you have to be able to do is name the problem. And then the next thing you have to be able to do is find proper language to talk about it. So girls and women, boys and men – the parallels were not equal. We were all called girls. And if we didn’t qualify as girls we were witches and lesbians and whatever. So, the language was really, really important at that point. You had to – you couldn’t, you couldn’t let it go. You couldn’t let someone use language that carried a lot of other baggage with it. Because every time you did you had relinquished some of your issues.


Ben Zimmer – a language columnist, linguist and lexicographer – traced the earliest origins of “Ms.” to a November 1901 edition of The Sunday Republican of Springfield, Massachusetts. In the article the writer called for “a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views to their domestic situation.”


Ben Zimmer

And it’s pretty rare that a new honorific title comes on the scene and then actually gets used. These things tend to develop over long periods of time or evolve from earlier honorific titles. So the fact that at the dawn of the 20th century this proposal was made and then, decades later, came to be embraced certainly in the 1960s and 1970s with the women’s liberation movement, is an historically important event. The fact that these honorifics accrue over time and sometimes reflect older, more traditional, social standards is the reason why Ms. became necessary in the first place. And we can see how the social changes that happened, especially in the 1960s and 70s, made the space that Ms. could fill.


The last holdout in the usage of "Ms." was The New York Times, which came around to the term 14 years after Ms. Magazine had launched. Max Frankel had recently ascended to the position of Executive Editor when the decision to use Ms. was made. 

Max Frankel

The Times itself had very serious issues involving what you may call the feminist movement. And there were delegations of women coming at us because of our employment policies, because of alleged discrimination in salaries. There was actually a long and somewhat bitter lawsuit by a number of women. I don’t particularly remember any pickets or agitation – physical agitation – on the issue of the use of Ms. But there may have been. I was up in my cloister at a higher floor, away from the news department.


When Copy Editor Betsy Wade executed the first change from “Mrs.” to “Ms.” on the front page of the Times in 1986, she was privy to a response from one famous New Yorker.


Betsy Wade

Meanwhile there was one hell of a racket going on – one very large racket. And the managing editor came out of his office. He had received a call from Beverly Sills. Beverly Sills, “You can take your Ms. away some place. I am Miss Sills and I am to be Miss Sills as long as your paper is mentioning Beverly Sills. And Beverly Sills, as it turned out, was a very firm Lucy Stoner. She wanted her identity, which was not just in her case a maiden name, it was a professional name. It was a name she had made for herself.  Indeed it was a short form of her parents’ name. So it was really her name. And she was a pretty good friend of the managing editor, so the policy was adopted. And they had to take the policy down off the wall and re-write it to say, ‘Unless the woman specifically requests that she be identified as Mrs. or Miss.” But I think what it is now when we look at it, I think it’s Ms. unless somebody specifically asks for something else. That’s the way it’s gone.


For more from the speakers in this edition of Fishko Files…

  • Suzanne Braun Levine is a writer, editor, and activist. You can visit her website here.
  • Sheila Michaels is a feminist activist. You can see an interview with Michaels here.
  • Watch the full interview with Paula Kassell, from Morris County's NOW chapter, here.
  • Max Frankel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He spent much of his career at The New York Times.


WNYC Production Credits...

Executive Producer: Sara Fishko
Assistant Producer: Laura Mayer
Mix Engineer: Wayne Shulmister
Managing Editor, WNYC News: Karen Frillmann