Women still lagging, ex-surgeon general says

Published 11:56 am Friday, March 25, 2011

Young women need to be empowered for personal achievement and to continue the progress toward equality begun by generations of women before them, and education is their most urgent need, former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders said in a visit to Vicksburg Thursday.

“We’ve got to keep trying to educate them, and we have to start early,” she said. “We have been doing too little, too late.”

Elders spoke at a National Women’s History Month program presented at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District offices on East Clay Street, attended by about 120 employees and guests.

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“We need to empower more women, and ask what we can do to strengthen them as they climb,” she said. “We have got to motivate those young women who have not caught on yet. They can’t rise to the top if they have an empty head.”

Outlining the history of the women’s movement, from abolitionist and women’s suffrage activist Elizabeth Stanton in the 1840s to current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Elders provided statistics showing inroads by women in such fields as law, engineering, medicine and business, but said just 5 percent of today’s Fortune 500 boardrooms include women. Women also continue to be paid less than men in comparable positions, she said.

“We’ve been trying for a very long time to make sure we have the right to do what we need to do,” Elders said, “but we need to keep working. There is still more to do.”

In his introductory remarks, Col. Jeffrey Eckstein, commander of the Vicksburg District, called Elders “a pioneer on many different levels.”

Now professor emeritus of pediatric endocrinology at the University of Arkansas School of Medical Science, Elders never saw a doctor growing up but became the 15th Surgeon General of the United States, appointed in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton.

She was an outspoken advocate for adolescent issues including sex education, which she continues to advocate. Comprehensive health education — including sex education — from kindergarten through 12th grade is critical, she said Thursday.

A commitment to the power of knowledge, money and especially the vote — “what so many women worked so hard for,” she said —is also critical.

Elders, the oldest of eight children, grew up in rural, segregated Arkansas. She won a scholarship to Philander Smith College in Little Rock as a 15-year-old, enlisted in the Army after graduation at 18 and was trained as a physical therapist.

Later, she attended the University of Arkansas Medical School on the G.I. Bill, interned in Minneapolis and completed her residency in pediatrics at UAMC in Little Rock, becoming chief resident in charge of an otherwise male, all-white group of residents and interns during the Civil Rights era.

In her professional work Elders combined clinical practice with research, writing, publishing and teaching.

Besides becoming the first board-certified physician in pediatric endocrinology in the state of Arkansas, Elders was the first African-American and just the second woman to head the U.S. Public Health Service.

After leaving the office of surgeon general in 1995, she returned to the University of Arkansas as a researcher and professor.