Guest Author: Cathleen Miller
In my life there’s been a recurring theme: I’m sitting in my study trying to write—between considering bankruptcy, wondering should I get a job, contemplating running off to South America and changing my name to Catalina—when the phone rings. And suddenly everything changes.
That’s what happened the morning the call came offering me the deal to write Desert Flower. And then four years later when the United Nations called me in California and asked if I’d like to write the life story of their top female leader, Nafis Sadik.
Such an innocuous thing, a telephone, that you don’t realize till years later how picking it up can send you in an unexpected direction and change your life. In this particular case, that direction was east, first to Manhattan to interview Nafis and her colleagues at the UN. Dr. Sadik had been named “One of the most powerful women in the world” by the London Times because of her groundbreaking work in women’s rights, so I knew I’d be in the presence of greatness. But I didn’t know I’d spend the next 10 years of my life delving into the source of that greatness.
By the time I finished Nafis’s biography, Champion of Choice, I had orbited the globe to interview some of the most acclaimed minds of our time, including several female heads of state. What I came home with felt like a PhD in leadership and diplomacy, a deep understanding of how Nafis and her cohorts had changed the world.
The watershed event where this change took place was the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo where Nafis received the signatures from 183 governments agreeing to females’ rights to contraception, education and health care. The nations committed to create access to these opportunities back home in the coming years.
The media usually focuses on the depressing facts of destruction and decline; but thanks to Nafis’s decades of effort here is one startling and earth-changing achievement: when this ob-gyn started with the UN Population Fund in 1971 the average global birthrate was six children per mother. By the time of her retirement 30 years later, that birthrate had been cut in half, and much of it’s due to her paradigm: birth control + education = a reduction in the world’s population.
March is Women’s History Month in the U.S. and the thing I am most proud of in Champion of Choice is that built into the story of how Nafis became “one of the most powerful women in the world” is the information on how she did it, in case others reading her biography also have a secret desire to change the world.
It’s my small contribution to women. After all, my life was changed by access to birth control and education…oh, and the telephone.
Cathleen Miller’s latest book, Champion of Choice, the biography of UN leader Nafis Sadik, has been named one of Booklist’s Top Ten Biographies of 2013. Her previous work includes the international bestseller Desert Flower, which was adapted as a feature film. Miller’s travel essays have appeared in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and Los Angeles Times.