As the nation prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and looks back on the impact of women throughout the last century, we should remember one woman who broke not just gender barriers but racial barriers, and influenced the course of the nation: Mildred Jefferson.
Jefferson was a bona fide pro-life icon. A brilliant, black, Harvard-educated surgeon, she helped found the nation’s oldest and largest pro-life organization; her eloquent pro-life arguments and her irrepressible passion also inspired some of the biggest voices in the nation to speak up for the unborn.
In fact, in 1972, after seeing Jefferson on a national television interview, then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan credited her with his pro-life conversion. He wrote to her: “No other issue since I have been in office has caused me to do so much study and soul-searching. … You made it irrefutably clear that an abortion is the taking of human life. I’m grateful to you.”
That letter would mark the beginning of a frequent correspondence between Jefferson and the governor. Reagan would go on to be one of the most unapologetically pro-life presidents in American history.
Jefferson wasn’t just brilliant, she was also a trailblazer for women. She earned her bachelor’s degree in three years and was the first African American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School in 1951. She also became the first female surgeon at what was then the Boston University Medical Center.
She was inspired to get involved in the pro-life movement when the American Medical Association decided it was ethical for physicians to perform abortions. It was a decision she strongly disagreed with and felt violated the Hippocratic Oath.
In the 1970s, as the nation was debating liberalizing abortion laws, she helped found the National Right to Life Committee and later served three times as its president.
As president, she became one of the most visible spokespersons for the pro-life position in the nation. She was a sought-after speaker and would captivate audiences everywhere—even those that disagreed with her. As a woman and a surgeon, she had an enormous amount of credibility to talk about abortion.
As she worked to change hearts and minds, she also knew that America needed to change its laws. In 1980, she was the driving force behind forming the NRLC PAC, one of the most successful political action committees in the country dedicated to helping elect pro-life candidates. The PAC has been instrumental in stopping numerous attempts to advance abortion laws and in passing laws to protect the unborn and their mothers.
Like so many others, I, Kay James, was one of those Jefferson inspired. I first saw her speak in the late 1970s when I was sitting in the audience as a mom with young children. Her talk left me awestruck and motivated me to become involved in the pro-life movement.
She was gracious enough to serve as a mentor to me in my early days in the movement. I became the national spokesperson for the NRLC, I was inspired to start a crisis pregnancy center in my hometown, and to this day, I speak around the country in defense of the unborn. Today, as president of The Heritage Foundation, advocating for pro-life laws is one of the things that I’m most passionate about.
While I, Jeanne Mancini, didn’t have the blessing to know Jefferson personally, she is an inspiration to me. She “swam upstream” against the cultural current to fight for what is real, true, and good. Jefferson always saw the unborn person as a patient with equal dignity. She did, as I do, lead a major pro-life organization when the issue was contentious and being pro-life wasn’t politically correct.
As we celebrate the upcoming centennial of the 19th Amendment, I am reminded that Jefferson’s entire life profoundly embodies our 2020 March for Life theme, “Life Empowers: Pro-Life is Pro-Woman.”
Jefferson helped the public see the cruelty and inhumanity of abortion and the inherent dignity of every human life. She inspired a president and countless lawmakers, pro-life leaders, and everyday Americans to fight to save the lives of innocent children in the womb. And at a time when abortion proponents were winning in the courts, she was winning the hearts and minds of the American people. Though she died in 2010, her legacy, her inspiration, and her example live on.
Jefferson’s fight is a fight that all people must join until abortion is unthinkable and the law of this great land reflects the dignity of the unborn person. As she so profoundly said, “The fight for the right to life is not the cause of a special few, but the cause of every man, woman, and child who cares not only about his or her own family, but the whole family of man.”