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Joycelyn Elders on Women in Leadership Positions
Women Can Make a Difference in Welfare, Education, Health Care, She Says

D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
posted Mar. 18, 1998

Joycelyn Elders, the former Surgeon General who was forced to resign in 1994 because of her controversial views on sex education, said she hasn’t always been such a radical.

But her fervent desire to end the poverty and abuse affecting the nation’s women and children forced her to take a less conventional route.

“When I got to Washington, I was in a hurry to get things done and this may have hurt me in the long run,” said Elders, speaking at a symposium on women’s leadership Thursday, March 12, at Clark Kerr Campus.

During her speech, the 65-year-old Elders challenged the predominately female audience to actively confront the daunting domestic issues facing our nation.

Elders outlined several problem areas, including welfare, education and health care, and suggested that increasing reproductive health services could help.

“Clinton says he wants to change welfare as we know it, but women should work together to abolish the need for welfare altogether. This can be done with increased reproductive health services and if that means handing out condoms in the schools then that’s what has to be done,” said Elders, adding that this view earned her the moniker of “condom queen” in Washington.

Elders bemoaned the lack of support for schools. She said prison construction is booming while schools deteriorate.

“Prison guards are making $20,000 more per year than school teachers. But, of course, most guards are men and most teachers are women, so that disparity is not too surprising to me,” said Elders, referring to statistics that show women’s wages average 75 percent of those earned by men.

Elders pointed out the irony of prisons boasting libraries and computer labs for inmates while schools struggle to get books and computers for students.

A lack of adequate health care endangers the nation’s poor and part-time workers, Elders said. Although most part-time work does not provide health insurance, Elders would like to see such benefits paid on a pro-rated basis.

“If a person works 30 percent time, she should receive 30 percent payment of her health insurance premium,” said Elders.

Elders calls the nation’s health care system a “sick care system” because the lack of health education, immunization and pre-natal care forces health care professionals to treat instead of prevent illness.

And treatment is only provided if a person has money or health insurance, added Elders.

“Every person accused of a crime has a right to a lawyer, but every sick person does not have the right to a doctor,” she noted.

But if women take a leadership role and work together, said Elders, many of these problems can be solved.

Elders offered six basic rules of leadership: power is never given up, it must be taken away; set a clear agenda; decide what you’re about and stick to it; don’t be afraid to ask for help; put ego aside; and keep your eyes on the prize.

Gaining and maintaining leadership is not easy in our male-dominated power structure, cautioned Elders. “It’s like dancing with a bear – if you get tired, you can’t sit down, you have to wait until the bear gets tired.”

Horace Mitchell, the vice chancellor for business and administrative services, one of the sprinkling of men in the audience, was inspired by Elders’ address.

“Her speech drew attention to issues that are important to men as well as women. I think this kind of conference should happen every year,” he said.

The symposium, jointly sponsored by Berkeley and San Francisco campuses, featured a day-long series of workshops by women in politics, business, academia and health care, as a way to promote gender equity and the advancement of women into leadership positions.

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