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Elders urges women to take lead
in addressing healthcare issues
May 3, 1999

The recent school shooting in Littleton, Colo., is more than a tragedy, it's also a wake-up call, according to former U.S. Surgeon General M. Jocelyn Elders.

"We all have to take a few risks if we're going to make a difference."

M. Joycelyn Elders
Former U.S. Surgeon General

"We've been dreaming," Elders said. "It's time for us to wake up from our dream and put together an action plan."

Elders spoke at the School of Allied Health's Tenth Women's Health Update: Women, Health & Diversity, held April 22 at the Artists Collective in Hartford. The program also included brief remarks by three other women and a performance by a group of young dancers. Kyra Harvey discussed health promotion and spirituality, Lucila Jimenez spoke about domestic violence, and Jean Lau Chin discussed race, gender, power and health before Elders took the stage.

Elders, touching on issues as varied as birth control, poverty and abuse, urged the audience to determine what societal changes need to be made and lead the way.

During her hour-long speech, Elders remarked on the need to change healthcare, especially as it affects women and children. The United States is the only industrialized country that doesn't provide healthcare for all of its citizens. Yet all criminals have a constitutional right to a lawyer, she said.

Healthcare is particularly critical for women, who live longer than men and are more likely to be plagued by chronic illnesses, Elders said.

"We don't want to just live longer, we want to live better," she said.

In order for that to occur, women must take control of their health and begin to discuss issues such as sexual abuse and reproductive issues, she said. Talking about often difficult topics openly could change our society from one in which people haven't been taught how to be healthy to one in which people are well informed.

But such a transformation will not be easy. Society as a whole and women must take risks if the change is to take place. "We all have to take a few risks if we're going to make a difference," Elders said.

While serving as the first African-American female Surgeon General, Elders came under fire for her often frank comments about sex education. She was forced to resign the post in December 1994 in the face of continuing criticism.

Elders noted that her removal didn't deter her. She urged the women in the audience to set goals, do whatever it takes to achieve them and not get discouraged by any setbacks they might encounter. Most importantly, women must learn to be leaders.

"We've got to be headlights not tail-lights," Elders said.

Once women begin to lead the way for change, they must be prepared to follow through with what they've started, Elders said.

Comparing work to dancing with a bear, Elders quipped that you have to follow the bear's lead. "You can't sit down until the bear gets tired."

Allison Thompson