Skip to main content
COLLECTION Identifier: MC 696: T-397: Vt-202

Papers of Mildred Jefferson, 1947-2010


Biographical and personal material; organizational files; campaign records; speeches; conference and membership materials; writings; photographs; memorabilia; and audiovisual material of Mildred Jefferson, surgeon and nationally recognized spokesperson of the right-to-life movement.


  • Creation: 1947-2010

Language of Materials

Materials in English.

Access Restrictions:

Access. Access is unrestricted with the exception of the following folders: #5.13, which is closed until January 1, 2058; #F+D.2, closed until January 1, 2049; #8.3, closed until January 1, 2029; and #9.12-10.1, closed until January 1, 2060. An appointment is required for access to audiovisual material.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by Mildred Jefferson is held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Schlesinger Library. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.

Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.


10.09 linear feet ((22 file boxes, 1 folio + box) plus 3 folio+ folders, 1 supersize folder, 4 photograph folders, 1 slide, 17 audiotapes, 20 videotapes)

The papers of Mildred Jefferson include some biographical materials and family and personal correspondence that provide insight into her early academic accomplishments and broad social network; the bulk represents her work within the right-to-life movement. There are also substantial papers related to her political campaigns for the United States Senate (1982, 1984) and United States House of Representatives (1986); papers related to later campaigns are scattered and incomplete. There are relatively few records associated with her medical practice and teaching position at Boston University Medical Center, but some papers highlight her professional activities as a medical consultant, board member, and trustee within various academic institutions and national policy-making organizations. There are also some papers related to her participation in and development of small businesses, but these records are scattered and incomplete. The collection was packed up on-site after Jefferson's death; there was no original filing system. Clippings, some of which were annotated, have been organized with related series. Folder headings and arrangement were created by the archivist.

Series I, BIOGRAPHICAL AND PERSONAL, 1947-2010, undated (#1.1-5.1, F+D.1), includes alumni material from Texas College and Harvard University Medical School; awards and certificates; appointment books, calendars and planners; curricula vitae; financial records; and legal files. Items of special interest include clippings of Jefferson's graduation from Harvard, and a travel diary describing her impressions of Europe. Folders are arranged alphabetically.

Family and personal correspondence mainly consist of incoming letters, some of which were annotated by Jefferson. There are a relatively small number of her copied responses. Family letters include clippings; invitations; greeting cards; and newsletters containing announcements of births and deaths, events, and accomplishments. Personal correspondence also includes clippings, and greeting cards. Included are letters from her husband, Shane A. Cunningham (#3.14-3.15). Other personal correspondence has been arranged chronologically and updated (#4.1-4.9).

Series II, RIGHT-TO-LIFE ORGANIZATIONS, 1972-2010, undated (#5.2-16.3, F+D.1-F+D.2), highlights Jefferson's leadership role within three major organizations, their interrelated activities, and relationships with allied organizations. The records are organized in four subseries.

Subseries A, Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Inc., 1972-2010, undated (#5.2-7.6, F+D.1-F+D.2), includes by-laws and board-related correspondence, minutes, organizational profiles, and financial records; clippings and press releases publicizing MCFL activities; flyers and announcements for conferences, programs, and other events; financial records; legal files; material related to local chapter development; and promotional material used for fundraising, including posters and audiovisual materials. Items of special interest include Jefferson's work with teens through the Massachusetts State National Right to Life Committee Oratory Contest. Donor records are restricted until January 1, 2058. Newsletters were transferred to the periodicals collection; consult the Library's catalog for holdings. Folders are arranged alphabetically.

Subseries B, National Right to Life Committee, 1975-2010, undated (#7.7-9.4), includes board-related correspondence, minutes and financial records; clippings and press releases publicizing NRTLC activities; educational materials; and promotional materials used for fundraising. Also included are reports on health care reform, legislative research related to the partial abortion ban, and other right-to-life issues. Donor records are restricted until January 1, 2029. Newsletters were transferred to the periodicals collection; consult the Library's catalog for holdings. Folders are arranged alphabetically.

Subseries C, Right to Life Crusade, Inc., 1978-2010, undated (#9.5-12.3, SD.1), includes records of an organization founded by Jefferson, who also served as president (1978-2007). Included are articles of incorporation and other board-related materials; administrative records associated with staff and volunteer work; clippings; financial records that include organizational expenses such as training, consultant fees, conferences, and travel expenses; fundraising material used for general and major gift campaigns; legislation research of right-to-life issues; signage; and notebooks used as telephone logs. Donor records are restricted until January 1, 2060. Newsletters were transferred to the periodicals collection; consult the Library's catalog for holdings. Folders are arranged alphabetically.

Subseries D, Allied organizations, 1973-2009, undated (#12.4-16.3), includes by-laws; articles of incorporation and board-related material; brochures, fact sheets, and flyers; correspondence; financial records; press releases, conference ephemera; legislative alerts; clippings and audiovisual materials. Newsletters were transferred to the periodicals collection; consult the Library's catalog for holdings. Folders are organized alphabetically by group name. Organizations represented by few documents are filed under subject headings.

Series III, OTHER PROFESSIONAL ACTIVITIES, 1952-2009, undated (#16.4-18.3), includes board-related correspondence from various academic institutions and national policy-making organizations; financial records associated with Jefferson's medical practice; legal files; papers related to her membership in various medical societies; reports; clippings; and press releases. Also included are a few legal and financial records, and correspondence, associated with Centurion International and Joseph Schneider Associates where Jefferson worked as director of public relations and shared financial responsibilities for office space. Items of special interest include correspondence documenting the challenges Jefferson faced in her medical career, her role as an expert witness in the trial of Dr. Kenneth Edelin for manslaughter in terminating a pregnancy (1975), and her work with the Ad Hoc Citizens Select Committee on Public Health Oversight. Folders are arranged alphabetically by activity followed by an alphabetical listing of organizations with which she was affiliated.

Series IV, POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS AND RELATED, 1977-2009, undated (#18.4-21.9, 23FB.1m, SD.1), includes campaign election guides, literature, memorabilia, signs, and speeches. Related speeches are included in Series VI (Photographs and Audiovisual). Also included are clippings and interviews; conference ephemera; correspondence; flyers and programs associated with forums, roundtables, and debates; candidate surveys; nominating forms; reports; newsletters providing political analysis; related research; statements of candidacy and other records associated with Jefferson's campaign committees (Friends of Dr. Jefferson and Jefferson for Congress). Items of special interest include the Conservative Youth Training Institute organized by Jefferson to ensure student participation in the electoral process and legal files countering challenges to her candidacy. Folders are arranged alphabetically.

Series V, PUBLICITY AND PUBLICATIONS, 1955-2008 (#21.10-22.13, F+D.1, F+D.3), includes Jefferson's published articles, guest editorials, op-ed and opinion pieces published in local newspapers, medical journals, and the newsletters of allied organizations; correspondence, speeches, program flyers, posters, financial records and clippings associated with Jefferson's numerous speaking engagements; unpublished writings that include drafts and published copies of her "Lifelines" columns, articles, and essays, which appeared in Massachusetts Citizens for Life News, National Right to Life News, and the International Life Times, a newspaper jointly published by International Respect for Life Communications Center and Jefferson during her presidency of the Right to Life Crusade, Inc. Items of special note include "Dissonance," a published letter to the editor in which Jefferson describes her treatment at Harvard Medical School; a keynote speech to black conservatives in Houston, Texas; and published defense of Clarence Thomas during his nomination hearings for the Supreme Court. Folders are arranged alphabetically.

Series VI, PHOTOGRAPHS AND AUDIOVISUAL, ca.1950-2007, undated (#PD.1-PD.5sl, #T-397.1 - T-397.17, Vt-202.1 - Vt-202.20), includes photographs, audio- and videotapes documenting Jefferson's appearances at political rallies, social events, and local and national radio and television programs. The material is organized in three subseries.

Subseries A, Photographs, ca.1950-2007, undated (PD.1-PD.5sl) includes publicity photographs; Jefferson receiving honorary degrees and awards from various academic institutions and at public events; and attending political rallies and social events. Folders are arranged chronologically. Most of the photographs in this collection are or will be digitized and available online.

Subseries B, Audiotapes, 1976-1992, undated (#T-397.1 - T-397.17), mainly documents Jefferson's appearances as a guest or host of regularly scheduled programs unless specified otherwise. Included is Jefferson's address at the National Right to Life Conference in 1976; guest lectures on various radio programs, including Healthfully Yours; pro-life songs, and an interview related to her campaign for the 8th Congressional District in 1986. The material is arranged chronologically.

Subseries C, Videotapes, 1982-2007 (#Vt-202.1 - Vt-202.20), mainly documents Jefferson's appearances as a guest or host of regularly scheduled programs unless specified otherwise. The videos include Life Matters, Jefferson's senatorial campaign speeches; and Ocean State Chronicle, a public affairs program produced and hosted by Jefferson in 1998. The material is arranged chronologically.


Surgeon and right-to-life activist Mildred Fay Jefferson was born in Pittsburgh, Texas, in 1926. The only child of Gurthie Lee Roberts Jefferson, a public school teacher, and Millard Jefferson, a military chaplain and Methodist minister, Jefferson attended local schools and graduated summa cum laude from Texas College in Tyler, Texas, in 1945. Her family subsequently relocated to Boston, Massachusetts, where she earned a master's degree from Tufts University (1947).

With the assistance of a scholarship, Jefferson pursued a medical career. In 1951, she became the first African American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School, and the first woman to intern at Boston City Hospital. During her post-graduate training Jefferson worked as an assistant physician in cancer chemotherapy at the Children's Hospital Medical Center in Boston, in the postgraduate department of surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, and at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Manchester, New Hampshire. She was the first woman employed as a surgeon at Boston University Medical Center, where she also served as assistant clinical professor of surgery at the university's medical school. A diplomate of the American Board of Surgery, Jefferson was the first woman elected to membership in the Boston Surgical Society, and served as general councillor for the State Club in Boston, a consulting member of the Suffolk District Medical Societies, and member of the House of Delegates of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

In 1955, Jefferson purchased a two-family home in Roxbury for her parents. She traveled throughout Europe in 1960, and a year later married Shane Cunningham, a former United States Navy lieutenant, who later became a Boston realtor. The marriage ended in 1978; the couple had no children. Her mother died that same year.

Jefferson's involvement in the "right-to-life" movement began in July 1970 when Dr. Barbara Rockett asked her to sign a petition initiated by physicians who objected to an American Medical Association resolution deferring to state laws on the issue of abortion. When their efforts failed, Jefferson joined Drs. Rockett, Joseph Stanton, and William Lynch, and other individuals representing the fields of law, education, religion and business, to organize the Value of Life Committee (VOLCOM), a non-denominational, grass-roots organization. Jefferson helped form and served on VOLCOM's board of governors. Their activities raised public awareness and signaled the beginning of the right-to-life movement in Massachusetts. In 1972, she and other VOLCOM members left to form Massachusetts Citizens for Life (MCFL), which was incorporated in 1973, four days after the Roe v. Wade decision. As vice-president and board member, Jefferson played an instrumental role in developing MCFL's strategies to counteract the growing impact of the abortion rights ("pro-choice") movement, which included comprehensive education and legislative, political, and charitable activities. Their efforts also included the founding of the National Right to Life Committee, Inc. (NRTLC), a charitable and educational federation comprising 50 state anti-abortion groups and more than 3000 local chapters. MCFL was formally recognized as a NRTLC state affiliate at its first national convention in June 1973. Jefferson later became chair of the NRTLC board and served three consecutive terms as its president (1975-1978). In 1978, she left the NRTLC to become president of the Right to Life Crusade, Inc. She continued to serve as a delegate to NRTLC (1999-2004), its director-at-large (2000), and member of its executive committee (1999-2004). She also remained active on the board of MCFL and several allied groups, including Americans United for Life Legal Defense Fund, the American Life League, and Black Americans for Life. In 2007, Jefferson resumed her work with MCFL as its president-elect.

Jefferson's experience and long-term interests in medical jurisprudence, medical ethics, and the relationship between medicine and law helped redefine and expand the right-to-life movement. In addition to anti-abortion activities, right-to-life groups organized protests against euthanasia, infanticide, human cloning, and embryonic stem cell research. Jefferson also organized and chaired several local and national citizen action groups, including the Ad Hoc Citizens Select Committee on Public Health Oversight, which focused on national health issues. She appeared as an expert witness at several key trials, and provided testimony at congressional, state legislative, and municipal hearings. In addition to serving as a board member, trustee, and advisor for numerous academic institutions, Jefferson participated in several national policy-making organizations, including Citizens for America, organized by former President Ronald Reagan.

Jefferson's commitment to the right-to-life movement also led her to become a political activist in the Republican Party. A self-described "Lincoln Republican," she campaigned for pro-life candidates at local, state, and national levels. In 1982, she left the field of medicine to launch the first of two campaigns to represent Massachusetts in the United States Senate. Competing for the nomination against fellow Republican Ray Shamie for the seat held by Edward M. Kennedy, Jefferson's election committee and numerous supporters collected only one-third of the 10,000 required signatures. Jefferson cited her lack of financial resources as a factor, but filed the signatures as a symbolic protest and called for an investigation into the handling of the petitions. In 1984, Jefferson again campaigned for the Republican nomination to the United States Senate (the seat vacated by Paul Tsongas) and collected less than 100 signatures. She blamed her Republican opponents Elliot Richardson and Ray Shamie for her failed campaign and unsuccessfully sought legal remedy through the courts. In 1986, Jefferson announced her candidacy for the Republican nomination to fill the Eighth Congressional District seat vacated by House speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill but was again unsuccessful. In addition to her political campaigns, Jefferson served as delegate-at-large at the Massachusetts GOP State Convention (1986), delegate from the Eighth Congressional District to the GOP National Convention for the Bush campaign (1992), and had her name placed in nomination at several Republican conventions (1982, 1990, 1994).

Throughout her long career, Jefferson remained a highly popular speaker and gave countless talks at academic institutions, conventions, political rallies, and other events in the United States, Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands. She was featured in numerous articles and interviews, and appeared on local and national television and radio programs, including Good Morning America, Nightline, Sixty Minutes, and the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour. Jefferson received many awards for her efforts, including 28 honorary degrees from American colleges and universities, the Father Flanagan Award of Boys Town (1978), and the Lantern Award for Patriotism from the State Council of Massachusetts Knights of Columbus (1979). Mildred Fay Jefferson died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 15, 2010.

For additional biographical information, see Jennifer Donnally's interview with Jefferson in the Schlesinger Library.


The collection is arranged in six series:

  1. Series I. Biographical and personal, 1947-2010, undated (#1.1-5.1, F+D.1)
  2. Series II. Right-to-life organizations, 1972-2010, undated (#5.2-16.3, F+D.1-F+D.2)
  3. Series III. Other professional activities, 1952-2009, undated (#16.4-18.3)
  4. Series IV. Political campaigns and related, 1977-2009, undated (#18.4-21.9, 23FB.1m, SD.1)
  5. Series V. Publicity and publications, 1955-2008 (#21.10-22.13, F+D.1, F+D.3, SD.1)
  6. Series VI. Photographs and audiovisual, ca.1950-2007, undated (#PD.1-PD.5sl, #T-397.1 - T-397.17, Vt-202.1 - Vt-202.20)

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession number: 2011-M12

The Mildred Jefferson papers were purchased from her estate in January 2011.

Related Material:

There is related material at the Schlesinger Library; see Joshua Prager Collection on Norma McCorvey and Roe v. Wade, 1926-2018 (MC 1031).


Donors: The family of Mildred Jefferson

Accession number: 2011-M12

Processed by: Emilyn Brown

Newsletters for which 3 or fewer issues existed were added to the Pro-life movement newsletter and periodical collection (Pr-16).

Processing Information

Processed: April 2012

By: Emilyn Brown, with assistance from Camille Torres.

Updated with additional description: November 2021

By: Cat Lea Holbrook

The Schlesinger Library attempts to provide a basic level of preservation and access for all collections, and does more extensive processing of higher priority collections as time and resources permit.  Finding aids may be updated periodically to account for new acquisitions to the collection and/or revisions in arrangement and description.

Jefferson, Mildred. Papers of Mildred Jefferson, 1947-2010: A Finding Aid
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Language of description
Processing of this collection was made possible by the supporters of the Schlesinger Library to the Maximum Access Fund.

Repository Details

Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository

The preeminent research library on the history of women in the United States, the Schlesinger Library documents women's lives from the past and present for the future. In addition to its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism, the Schlesinger collections document the intersectional workings of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in American history.

3 James St.
Cambridge MA 02138 USA