How 2 Women Fought To Be Called 'Miss' And 'Ms.'

Nov 30, 2017
Originally published on December 1, 2017 11:23 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

This next story is about two women. One is black, one is white and their fight to be called Miss and Ms. respectively. Their names are Mary Hamilton and Sheila Michaels, and they were civil rights activists in the '60s - actually, roommates. And we know their story in part because Sheila Michaels recorded hours of interviews with Mary Hamilton in the '90s. Here's Mary talking about what it was like to join the civil rights movement.

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MARY HAMILTON: It's happening. We're finally fighting back. We're going to fight back. We're fighting back. We're not going to take it anymore.

MCEVERS: You're going to hear a lot of voices in this story - Mary Hamilton, the black activist, and Sheila Michaels, the white activist, also the hosts of our Code Switch podcast where the story first aired, Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji. And we start with the person who reported this story, NPR's Camila Domonoske. She starts by talking about Mary Hamilton, the black activist. And heads up - you will hear a few strong words in the first minute of the story.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: She was organizing. She registered voters. She raised money, and then there would be protests with nonviolent resistance. And that didn't necessarily come naturally to her. Her first impulse was to fight back. Her daughter, Holly, says that other activists called Mary Red.

HOLLEY WESLEY: And not because of her hair but because of her temper. So for a nonviolent movement, my mother was one who would get angry, aggravated and, I don't know if I can say, but pissed off.

DOMONOSKE: She had to learn how to keep her cool.

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HAMILTON: We had to practice nonviolence because if we didn't, we'd get the [expletive] kicked out of us.

DOMONOSKE: Mary Hamilton met all these kinds of situations with a constant sort of defiance, and that fueled her activism, and it also brings us back to that word Miss - M-I-S-S.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: So this is the South, right? It's the '60s. White people, especially in positions of authority, would not use honorifics for black people. That's why you get black men being called boy and black women being called girl or they get called slurs. And even they did use a name, it wouldn't be Miss Hamilton. They would just call Mary Hamilton by her first name. They would just say Mary, no matter how old she was, no matter who was talking to her.

DOMONOSKE: No matter how formal the context was and no matter how white women were being addressed around her.

DEMBY: Right.

DOMONOSKE: So I talked to Barbara McCaskill. She's an English professor at the University of Georgia. She's studied black American narratives. She's studied narratives of the civil rights movement, and her own mother vividly remembered not being called Miss.

BARBARA MCCASKILL: Segregation was in the details as much as it was in the bold strokes. The idea was to remind African-Americans and people of color in general in every possible way that we were inferior, to drill that notion into our heads. And language becomes a very powerful force to do that.

DOMONOSKE: So this is something that then Mary Hamilton in the 1960s was encountering all across the South, and she was pushing back against over and over again. There's this moment in her activism when she is in Gadsden, Ala. It's 1963. Mary Hamilton is protesting. She is arrested, and the authorities refuse to call her Miss. Mary's daughter, Holly, told me about what happened when her mother arrived in that courtroom to stand before the judge.

WESLEY: The attorney for the state of Alabama said, Mary, what are you here for? And my mother responded with, I will not answer you until you call me Miss Hamilton.

DOMONOSKE: Here's how Mary Hamilton remembered that moment with that judge.

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HAMILTON: And the judge was sitting in this big chair it looked like it was swaddling him because he was a little man. And he had his foot up on the desk - beautiful, hand-carved mahogany desk - and his little, ol' tiny runt of a skunk. And he's going, wouldn't you make a nice little heifer in my kitchen? Oh, my Lord. I wanted to hit him. One of the lawyers was a real young kid. He grabbed me (laughter). He said, I thought you were going to jump over that desk at him. I said, all I remember is seeing red.

DOMONOSKE: The judge ordered her to apologize. Her lawyer told her very quietly that she didn't have to. Mary told Sheila that in that moment she needed that.

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HAMILTON: I needed the strength of another human being to know that I was right.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: So did she apologize?

DOMONOSKE: She did not. So she was sentenced to a few days in jail for contempt of court and hit with a $50 fine.

DEMBY: That's a lot of money back then.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. So her lawyers challenged the fine and imprisonment as unlawful because the prosecutor had been violating her constitutional rights by treating her differently than he treated white witnesses.

DEMBY: Treating her differently because he wouldn't call her Miss.

DOMONOSKE: Exactly. Because he called white women Miss but would not do the same for her. That case, Hamilton v. Alabama, was appealed and appealed and eventually made its way all the way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously without even calling for oral arguments. They basically said this one is pretty obvious. You cannot call black people and only black people by their first names in court. That's discriminatory. And the precedent from that case stands to this day.

DEMBY: So, Camila, how did you find out about Mary Hamilton?

DOMONOSKE: This summer, I was working on an obituary for Sheila Michaels.

MERAJI: Sheila, Mary's friend.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, her old roommate, the one who recorded those tapes. Sheila Michaels started the movement for women to go by Ms., as in M-S, that version that doesn't say whether you're married or not. She was actually inspired by a piece of mail to Mary back around 1961 when they were roommates in New York, and it did use an honorific for Mary, but it said Ms. - M-S - Mary Hamilton. At the time, that was a relatively obscure etiquette option that you might put on a piece of, like, business mail if you didn't know if a woman was married or not.

DEMBY: Right.

DOMONOSKE: But women didn't use it to describe themselves. And Sheila thought, well, hey, maybe we should. Maybe this is a way to not be defined by whether or not we're married to a man. Sheila, like many of the women she worked with, said that her civil rights activism made her feminist activism possible.

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SHEILA MICHAELS: For me, that was the seeds of feminism. I don't know that I would have been ready to just - I mean, I would have been ready to just jump in, but it wouldn't have happened.

DOMONOSKE: And she used that new feminist platform to push this idea that she had of a title that doesn't say whether or not you're married. And that eventually inspired the name of the feminist publication Ms. Magazine.

MERAJI: So these two women, these two close friends, you know, Sheila's fighting for an honorific that didn't define women based on their relationship to men. Mary Hamilton, as a black woman, was fighting just to be addressed by the honorific that a white lady like Sheila took as a given. I love this story.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. The central role that women played in the civil rights movement as leaders, as strategists, as people who were feeding activists and opening up their homes to them and putting their bodies and their safety on the line in the way that Mary Hamilton did, it's something that just gets wiped out of the narrative so often. And then white women who went on to become feminists like Sheila did get written into the history books. And even though Sheila spent years trying to tell Mary's story, Mary was mostly forgotten.

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MCEVERS: The story of Miss Mary Hamilton and Ms. Sheila Michaels, both now deceased, as told by NPR reporter Camila Domonoske to Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby, hosts of our Code Switch podcast where you can hear a longer version of this story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.