Originally published October 18, 2010
This week Feminists for Life honors the life of Dr. Mildred Fay Jefferson, an accomplished surgeon and professor of surgery, a tireless advocate for women and children, who died Friday, October 15 at the age of 84. Feminists for Life named Dr. Jefferson a Remarkable Pro-Life Woman® in 2003.
Among her many achievements, Jefferson was the first African-American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, the first woman to serve as a surgical intern at Boston City Hospital, and the first woman to be elected to membership in the Boston Surgical Society. Twenty-eight American colleges and universities have awarded Dr. Jefferson honorary degrees in recognition of her efforts in the field of medicine and her pursuit of social justice.
Dr. Jefferson said she “became a physician in order to help save lives.” When reading her words, we cannot help being reminded of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree from an American medical school and first woman on the British medical register, whose career had a similar motive. Blackwell wrote, “The gross perversion and destruction of motherhood by the abortionist filled me with indignation, and awakened active antagonism. That the honorable term ‘female physician’ should be exclusively applied to those women who carried on this shocking trade seemed to me a horror. It was an utter degradation of what might and should become a noble position for women…. I finally determined to do what I could do ‘to redeem the hells,’ and especially the one form of hell thus forced upon my notice.”
Regarding her own career, Jefferson asserted, “I am at once a physician, a citizen, and a woman, and I am not willing to stand aside and allow this concept of expendable human lives to turn this great land of ours into just another exclusive reservation where only the perfect, the privileged, and the planned have the right to live.”
Dr. Jefferson, who called the pro-life movement “second only to the abolitionist movement in the profound change it has brought about in American thinking,” helped to found the National Right to Life Committee, which she served both as president and as a member of the board. She was a founding member, past president, and board member of the Value of Life Committee of Massachusetts and Massachusetts Citizens for Life, and headed the Right to Life Crusade.
Jefferson also encouraged pro-life college and university students to organize. “If I had my way,” she said, “there would be a pro-life group on every college campus here in the United States and in its territories…. I hope that wherever you [students] have a department of women’s studies or black studies that you will have a corresponding pro-life movement.”
It was Dr. Mildred Jefferson who recommended that the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, part of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, seek Feminists for Life’s archives for inclusion in their collection. The Schlesinger Library believes “that Feminists for Life [archives] will complement the existing feminist collections and add a powerful story of strong women and their efforts.”
“It was always an honor when Dr. Jefferson would attend a campus lecture, or share FFL’s message on her television show,” said FFL President Serrin Foster, “And I was so pleased that she was able to attend the ribbon cutting ceremony at the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum in Adams, Massachusetts, on February 14, 2010, the eve of Susan B. Anthony’s 190th birthday. In so many ways Dr. Jefferson truly walked in the footsteps of the abolitionist and suffragist leader.”
The board and staff of Feminists for Life extend their heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Dr. Mildred Jefferson. “Her legacy will live on in our pro-life feminist work on college campuses and beyond,” Foster said.