Women’s History Month: Joycelyn Elders

Dr. Joycelyn Elders
Photo courtesy of Dr. Joycelyn Elders

Born: August 13, 1933 in Schaal, Arkansas

Bio: Joycelyn Elders was director of the Arkansas Department of Health and the U.S. surgeon general in President Bill Clinton’s administration. Her controversial opinions led to her resignation after just over a year as surgeon general. 

Minnie Lee Jones took the name Joycelyn while attending college. From an early age, she showed considerable academic ability, and in 1949, she earned a scholarship to Philander Smith College. She was the first in her family to attend college, and she initially intended to become a lab technician. After attending a lecture by Edith Irby Jones, the first woman to attend the University of Arkansas Medical School (later the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences), she decided to become a physician. 

As head of ADH, Elders instituted a controversial program to dispense contraceptives to public school students, a plan that drew fire from conservatives. In 1989, largely at the behest of Elders, the legislature mandated a K-12 sex education program that focused on personal responsibility, hygiene, and substance abuse prevention, issues she recognized as often being linked.

Elders was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame in 2016.

You can learn more about the life of Joycelyn Elders at the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.