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From One Question to Five Million Copies Sold

What Is Your Burning Question?

As you read I invite you to ask yourself “what is my burning question?” (And I will ask you later)

A “burning question” helps you get at the purpose of your life (or organization or business) and the actions you need to take to fulfill your purpose. A burning question gets you up in the morning, wakes you at night and is so compelling that you have to follow where it leads you. It calls out to you as much as you are asking it. It occurs as having a life of its own.

Miriam’s Story: The Beginning of the Women’s Movement

Here is the history of my one question.

I am 71. My story begins 48 years ago in the office of my OB/GYN at a six-week check up after the birth of my first son. Imagine me as a 23 year old professional young woman asking a question after the doctor (he) recommended that I use a new–to-market pill for birth control.

“What’s in this pill?” I ask.

His response: with a condescending pat on my head, he literally said, “don’t worry your pretty little head!”

My reaction – first embarrassment, then anger that would turn to outrage, an outrage that would help source the women’s movement and create Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS).

In the months that followed my family and I moved from Ann Arbor, MI to Cambridge, MA. I refused the high dosage pill he prescribed and instead continued to use a diaphragm for protection – messy though it was!

From Miriam’s Personal Story to A Global Movement

I would now like to share the journey of my burning question –to share what happened in a sterile doctor’s office and how it triggered a movement that resonated with women globally. Let me give you the context:

America in the 1960’s

It is the sixties in America. There are growing civil rights and anti war movements followed by the deaths of some of our most important and inspiring leaders – John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. We were coming out of the fifties and the “feminine mystique” and into the beginnings of the second wave of the women’s movement.

I was the first generation in my family to complete college. My parents were activists. Social justice was the family’s religion. I grew up singing songs of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, and Odetta. My mother was an early feminist and encouraged me to get the professional degree she hadn’t been able to pursue because of the Great Depression. While opportunities have expanded, there are still great inequities in the marketplace.

The one burning question remained with me through the birth of my second child and motivated me to organize the first women’s conference in Boston.

It’s now April 1969 early in the morning. I am sitting in a butterfly chair in my living room. My three-week-old daughter has finally fallen asleep in my arms. I am exhausted and questioning why I had taken on helping to organize the first women’s conference in Boston. Then I think back to my unanswered question, the conversations with women friends about their questions and to the stories of friends who had unnecessary C sections or no access to abortions. I look at my daughter and think “I am doing it for you!”

Our Bodies Ourselves was Born

On May 4, 1969 I am standing in front of a packed room at Emmanuel College’s female liberation conference leading the workshop “Control of their Bodies.” From June 1969 to Dec 1970 there is a lot of activity. We meet in each other’s homes; we research topics on women’s health and sexuality and gather women’s experiences; we mimeograph papers and deliver a course at an MIT lounge; women ask for a book; we raise money and print the book ourselves. In December, 1970 Women and Their Bodies (later named Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS)) is born.


An early addition of Our Bodies Our Selves. An early addition of Our Bodies Our Selves.

During the next two years we sell 250,000 copies by word of mouth...every woman has a body and knowledge is power. For these reasons I declare we are going to sell 1 million books and people laugh at me. In 1972 we sign a contract with Simon and Schuster to achieve wider distribution...eventually of many millions!

The Women and Women and Health Movements Grew: Personal is Political

By seeking information for ourselves, we saw the value for all women, and we found we could make a difference. In the context of the growing women and women and health movements, OBOS was one committed group of women that was instrumental in altering the global conversation about women’s health and sexuality.

We have honored our personal questions and our personal experiences . Coming together and sharing our stories, we have learned that the personal is political. We have named and addressed the systems in play—first and foremost, our bodies. Then the hierarchal medical system dominated by male doctors. We don’t blink at the fact that over 50% of doctors today are women. When I first asked my question in 1966, none were visible to me.

And the social/political/economic systems that focus on profits before people are alive and well in the current healthcare debate.

With willful spirits, each of us persisted with our questions; we persisted to build a movement, an international women’s movement.

Our Bodies Ourselves is Available Internationally and Launched Groups in Many Countries

Our book has been a resource for women (and engaged men) worldwide for 43 years now. 31 different language or format editions exist. We are getting ready for editions in Vietnamese and in Farsi.

Arabic and Hebrew Editions of OBOS Were Celebrated at the 40th Anniversary of OBOS in 2011

Now picture yourself in Jerusalem listening to Palestinian and Israeli women who are part of an Our Bodies, Ourselves group, discussing new language for women’s genitals. They came together to translate and adapt our book for women in their countries. The only word for women’s genitals in Arabic previously had been “down there.” Not only did they find new language, they also worked together to raise money to print an Arabic edition – an edition that was supported by the Israeli women- when there was no Arab publisher who would touch the book. Together we celebrated their work and both the books at the 40th anniversary celebration of OBOS in 2011. Women will lead the way for peace in the Middle East!

The Importance of One Burning Question

It all started with one burning question- what’s in this birth control pill? – That led to women gathering together and generating a new way of looking at our bodies, ourselves and the world.

Take a moment – what is your one burning question? Speak it out loud to someone today.

My first burning question was addressed. Now I have a new one. From my work as a business coach and researcher/author, what is compelling to me now is “how do we bring our whole selves to the whole of our lives” for the purpose of enjoying life and of making the difference we want to see in the world?

Women’s Leadership in the Twenty-First Century: A Call To Action

Just as in the sixties, we are in the midst of a cultural shift – a shift that demands that women take leadership and women and men work together to keep the thread alive that for me started with my initial question. Will you join me? Will you join us? As we enter into a process that cares for self, for one another and the planet? Together we can cause the transformation that will create a sustainable reality for our children, grandchildren and generations to come.

It may take 900 years...we are only responsible for asking the questions and getting started. Joanna Macy Poet, Deep Ecologist and Buddhist

Some thoughts to leave you with:

  • Start with your question, your purpose and the values underlying that purpose that can ignite the culture change you want to see in your business or organization.
  • Find partners and practices that enhance your exploration, extend your influence and lay out the path to the desired culture change or paradigm shift
  • Bring your whole self to the process – mind, body, spirit, and emotions. Trust your process and take a stand for your purpose, one that can guide you and your team/organization
  • Notice the steps you’ve taken – individually and collectively – to move your singular question toward the global impact you desire
  • Respond to and create opportunities for public recognition and acknowledgement of the culture change or paradigm shift. Is your legacy set? Have you enrolled the next generation(s)? What is next?

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