This week in history: Dr. Joycelyn Elders testifies to Congress
Photo: Joycelyn Elders in her official portrait / public domain

Twenty-five years ago, on July 23, 1993, President Bill Clinton’s nominee as 15th Surgeon General of the United States, Joycelyn Elders (born in 1933), testified at a Congressional confirmation hearing and openly affirmed her belief in factual sex education and support for AIDS research and care. Her controversial views and strong backing of the Clinton health care plan delayed her confirmation until September 7, 1993.

Elders became the first African American, and the second woman, appointed as Surgeon General of the United States. In office, she continued to speak out frankly on issues such as drug legalization, masturbation and distributing contraception in schools. She was forced to resign in December 1994.

Born in Arkansas to a poor sharecropping family, she was the eldest of eight children. In 1952 she received her B.S. degree in biology and joined the Army in May 1953, where she was trained as a physical therapist. She then attended the University of Arkansas Medical School, obtaining her M.D. degree in 1960.

In 1987, then-governor Bill Clinton appointed Elders as director of the Arkansas Department of Health, making her the first African-American woman in the state to hold this position. Some of her major accomplishments while in office include reducing the teen pregnancy rate by increasing the availability of birth control, counseling, and sex education at school-based clinics; a tenfold increase in early childhood screenings from 1988 to 1992 and a 24 percent rise in the immunization rate for two-year-olds; and expanding the availability of HIV testing and counseling services, breast cancer screenings, and better hospice care. She promoted the importance of sex education, proper hygiene, and prevention of substance abuse in public schools. In 1992, she was elected President of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers.

Elders was not immune from racism in the workplace. “Some people in the American Medical Association, a certain group of them, didn’t even know that I was a physician. And they were passing a resolution to say that from now on every Surgeon General must be a physician—which was a knock at me…. They don’t expect a black female to have accomplished what I have and to have done the things that I have.” In one interview, asked if she felt more oppressed as a woman than as an African American, she replied, “I am who I am because I’m a black woman.”

As a voice for the African-American community, Elders spoke on poverty and its role in teenage pregnancy. Poor African-American teenage mothers are “captive to a slavery the 13th Amendment did not anticipate,” she said—a major reason why she stressed the importance of teaching sex education in public schools. As an endocrinologist, Elders was especially concerned with young diabetic women getting pregnant, leading to the chance of abnormal fetal development. She advocated the importance of using contraceptives, and women taking control of their sexuality as soon as they began puberty.

Black females did not readily seek out birth control because, she said, their “[black] ministers were up on the pulpit saying the birth control pills were black genocide.” She vocally expressed her disgust with black men exploiting black women and stripping them of their reproductive health choices, because “If you can’t control your reproduction, you can’t control your life.”

A supporter of her work in Arkansas, in January 1993, Bill Clinton nominated her as the United States Surgeon General, but her path to her eventual confirmation was rocky. Controversy pursued her constantly. At first, Pres. Clinton stood by Elders, saying that she was misunderstood, but as his first term advanced she became for him more of a political liability than an asset.

Elders drew censure from the Clinton administration when she suggested that legalizing drugs might help reduce crime and that the idea should be studied. On December 15, 1993, around one week after making these comments, charges were filed against her son Kevin, for selling cocaine in an incident involving undercover officers. Elders believes the incident was a frame-up and the timing of the charges designed to embarrass her and the president. Kevin Elders was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In 1994, Elders was invited to speak at a United Nations conference on AIDS. She was asked whether it would be appropriate to promote masturbation as a means of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity, and she replied, “I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught.” That year, in the context of the abortion issue, she was quoted as saying, “We really need to get over this love affair with the fetus and start worrying about children.” These remarks caused an uproar in Congress and resulted in her loss of support from the White House. In December 1994, Clinton forced her to resign after a stormy 16-month tenure.

Elders returned to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences as professor of pediatrics and is now a professor emerita.

Joycelyn Elders became an early lightning rod for the unrelenting right-wing attack on the Clintons. As history has unfolded in the years since, many of the issues she spoke out on still form part of the debate between liberal rationalism and fundamentalist authoritarianism.

Adapted from Wikipedia


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People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.