Dr. Joycelyn Elders: Great Sluts of History

“Once I had a professor say to me, ‘You know you have as much education as a lot of white people.’ I answered, ‘Doctor, I have more education than most white people.'”

In 1978, Dr. Joycelyn Elders became the first person in the state of Arkansas to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology. Not the first African-American person, or the first woman, the first person.

Yes, she was/is that outstanding and driven.

Queen of Condoms, Maybe. Queen of Political Correctness, Never.


“If I could be the ‘condom queen’ and get every young person who engaged in sex to use a condom in the United States, I would wear a crown on my head with a condom on it! I would!”

Dr. Joycelyn Elders became a lightning rod of controversy, as she suggested one “radical” idea after another. Like her candid remarks on the “War on Drugs.”

What Did She Say About the Legalization of Drugs?

From a New York Times interview:

Q: You ruffled some feathers recently when you said, “We would markedly reduce our crime rate if drugs were legalized; we need to do some studies.”

A: I was just expressing an honest opinion in response to a question. I had given a talk at the National Press Club on violence. I had said nothing about drugs. And the question I was asked was, did I feel that the legalization of drugs would reduce crime. And I said, “Yes, it would.” I said I didn’t know all the ramifications of the legalization of drugs, but I certainly felt that it should be studied. I said that any time we were going to spend $22 billion fighting a war on drugs, putting police into the street, building bigger and bigger jails, we deserved to study what we need to do. I don’t know the answer. I don’t know anybody who does. But if we are going to make that kind of investment, we should know the implications of what it means. 

Oh. Yes, radical. Radical, like conservatives William F. Buckley, Jr., Milton Friedman, Pat Robertson, Tom Tancredo, Andrew Napolitano, and hundreds more… Dr. Elders simply opened her mouth and said it should be studied. But she said it in the 1990’s, a time when very few other people in the national spotlight had the guts or honesty to answer with anything but a knee-jerk, self-protective grunt: “Drugs bad. Jails good.”

Where Did This Articulate and Outspoken Woman Come From?

Birth: August 13, 1933, as Minnie Lee Jones, the eldest of eight children in a poverty-stricken section of rural Arkansas. The segregated school she and her siblings attended was 13 miles away, and they often missed school during harvest time, September to December.

College: Part scholarship, part sweat equity. At all-black college Philander Smith, she scrubbed floors to pay for her tuition, and her siblings worked to earn enough money for her bus fare to Little Rock. While at Smith, she heard Edith Irby Jones speak, and revised her dreams upward, from being a lab tech to being a doctor. And decided to change her name to Joycelyn.

Army Life: 1953-1956 – Trained in physical therapy in Texas. After her discharge, she attended the University of Arkansas Medical School via the G.I. bill. Though separate but equal had been struck down, she was still required to eat in a separate dining room… with the cleaning staff.

Marriage: Twice, in 1952 to Cornelius Reynolds, separating in 1952 and later divorcing. 1960, to Oliver Elders, manager of the Horace Mann High School basketball team, whom she met while performing the team’s physical exams.

Children: Two sons, one of whom, Kevin, got into legal trouble about drugs possession during the time she was being confirmed as Surgeon General. Coincidence? Setup? Hard to tell.

That’ll be Doctor Elders, to you: Internship at University of Minnesota, residency at the University of Arkansas. Masters’ Degree in biochemistry in 1967; assistant professor of pediatrics in 1971; full professor in 1976.

Religion: Christian

From the National Institute of Health:

Over the next twenty years, Elders combined her clinical practice with research in pediatric endocrinology, publishing well over a hundred papers, most dealing with problems of growth and juvenile diabetes. This work led her to study of sexual behavior and her advocacy on behalf of adolescents. She saw that young women with diabetes face health risks if they become pregnant too young—include [sic] spontaneous abortion and possible congenital abnormalities in the infant. She helped her patients to control their fertility and advised them on the safest time to start a family.

In 1987, Governor Bill Clinton named Dr. Elders Director of the Arkansas Department of Health. At that time, 20% of children born in Arkansas were born to teenage parents. The second highest teenage rate in the industrialized world, and something Clinton considered a social and fiscal crisis.

“The most common cause of poverty is children becoming parents before they become adults. So I felt that we’ve got to prevent our children from having children. Whatever we need to do.”

 In 1989, largely at the direction of Dr. Elders, the Arkansas legislature mandated a kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade sex education program that focused on personal responsibility, hygiene, and substance abuse prevention, issues she recognized as often being linked.

One high school dropped from 40 pregnancies per year to three. (Most recently, after the closing of the high school-based health clinics and the introduction of abstinence-only sex education programs, the pregnancy rate has gone back up to 46 per year.)

“… given a choice between hearing my daughter say ‘I’m pregnant’ or ‘I used a condom,’ most mothers would get up in the middle of the night and buy them herself.”

Clinton Wanted Dr. Elders to Do for the United States What She’d  Done For Arkansas

From Notable Biographies:

President Clinton’s nomination of Elders for the post of U.S. surgeon general made her the second African American and fifth woman to be chosen for a cabinet position. However, some people were strongly against the president’s choice. Elders was criticized for favoring abortion on demand (abortion without restriction). Her critics also did not agree with her support for medicinal use of marijuana, U.S. legalization of the RU-486 pill (which may be taken by a woman to end a pregnancy), and her urging television networks to air condom ads. She was also involved in a scandal regarding the National Bank of Arkansas, for which she had served on the board of directors. Nevertheless, Elders gained the backing of the American Medical Association and former U.S. surgeon general C. Everett Koop (1916–). In September 1993 the Senate approved her nomination by a sixty-five to thirty-four vote.

As U.S. surgeon general, Elders continued her work regarding teen pregnancy. She was also concerned with tobacco use, national health care, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS; a disease of the immune system), gun control, and drug and alcohol abuse.

“They say, ‘Well, condoms will break.’ That’s right; condoms will break,” she admits. “But there is no question that the vows of abstinence break far more easily than does latex condoms. We’ve got to be about protecting our children.”

Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil

Less than a year and a half into her term as Surgeon General, at the United Nations World AIDS Day on December 1, 1994, Dr. Elders was asked about the concept of promoting masturbation as a way to discourage school-age children from riskier sexual activity.

“I think that is something that is a part of human sexuality, and it’s a part of something that perhaps should be taught,” she said. “But we’ve not even taught our children the very basics. And I feel that we have tried ignorance for a very long time, and it’s time we try education.”

She later clarified that she wasn’t saying we should teach children how to masturbate (most of us have figured that part out fine on our own, thanks), but that we should teach that masturbation is a natural and normal part of human sexuality.

How would masturbation be taught, exactly? From Philly.com:

The National Guidelines for Sexuality Education, published by the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States, says masturbation should be taught to children, ages 5 to 8.

That approach says that “touching and rubbing one’s own genitals is called masturbation” and that it “should be done in a private place.”

The guidelines suggest that for older children, ages 12 to 15, ”masturbation . . . is one way a person can enjoy and express their sexuality without risking pregnancy or . . . disease.”

Are you horrified? Do you believe presenting so much explicit nasty knowledge would ruin the lives of young children?

Are you as mystified as I am that this was even considered controversial?

“80% of women masturbate; 95% of men masturbate. And the rest lie.”

Chicken Little, aka President Bill Clinton, Decided The Sky Was Falling

It would have taken a substantial set of cojones to stand behind an embattled Surgeon General when so many conservatives were making hay over these “controversial” remarks. One might wonder if Bill’s pair were being called upon to do too much at once, but at any rate, President Clinton failed to stand behind his Surgeon General.

Republicans had retaken the House in 1994, and many Clinton opponents seized on and twisted her remarks as a way to embarrass the administration. After the hoopla about Dr. Elders also speaking sense about re-evaluating The War On Drugs, the President decided this issue wasn’t the hill he wanted to die on. So he asked for (demanded) Dr. Elders’ resignation.

The following is one of the amazing set of videos from the National Visionary Leadership Project, an extended interview of Dr. Elders in her own words. 

In 1999, Dr. Elders retired from teaching, although she does still occasionally present speeches.

A Word on the Use of “Slut” for Dr. Elders and Other Women of Color

Of all the women who are slut-shamed or otherwise called nasty names in American culture, women who are African-American, Latina, Middle Eastern, Native American, Asian, or otherwise “dark” have been and continue to be especially targeted. Even going back to European Middle Ages, there was a ridiculous dichotomy of blonde/fair = innocent/good; brunette/olive = sexual/bad, a stereotyping that continues to this day. As a white woman attempting to be sensitive to the concept of privilege, I considered not using the word “slut” for this post on Dr. Elders and other women of color  in this series. Perhaps modifying it to the word “sl*t…?”

After much sleeping on it and pondering, I decided not to be chicken-shit about it. The whole point of this series is that NO woman deserves to be slut-shamed or ridiculed for being frank and outspoken, for being powerful, or for being sexual. We cannot suck the venom and power out of the word “slut” if I apply it here only to white women. So, with apologies to any women of color who may feel triggered by the word, I am presenting the viewpoint that the insult “slut” has become a badge of honor, a demonstration by the fearful that our feminine power and strength frightens them, and that all of us “sluts” are in this together.

About the Great Sluts in History series:What makes a woman a “slut,” anyway? From Lillith to Jezebel to Sandra Fluke, it seems that whenever women are in positions of power, open about their sexuality, “too outspoken,” or heaven forbid, all three, they are labeled sluts by some men (and sometimes other women), in an attempt to shame them into “knowing their place.” And into meekly accepting “their place.”

This series will look at flawed and wonderful heroines throughout history who insisted on “Following their own weird,” no matter how much it cost them to do so. And how, by doing so, they made the world better for all humans, of all genders, who followed them.

“…it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights… If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.” ~Hillary Rodham Clinton, 1995

What do you think of  the controversial Dr. Joycelyn Elders?
What’s worse: sexually active teens masturbating, teens using condoms, or pregnant teens?

Do you think that anything Dr. Elders said was so very outrageous?