Former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, speaking at the University of Utah, challenged women to constantly strive for equality.
Elders called education "the greatest equality we can get."
She said education is the key to achieving not only gender equality but racial and economic equality as well.
"The very best indication of the health of a nation is the health and education of its women," she said.
Elders was invited by the university to be the keynote speaker for Women's Week activities. Nearly 200 people listened to her speech Wednesday at Union Ballroom.
Education will teach people to listen and give them a vision to create a better world for men and women, she said.
Elders compared the equality battle faced by women to a dance with a bear. "You can't just get tired and sit down," you have to wait until the bear gets tired and sits down first, she said.
"We as women have got to learn to be the headlights. We've been the taillights too long."
Elders reminded her audience that actions speak louder than words.
"Sometimes we get so busy talking about what we can't do that we don't do what we can," she said.
Elders called on women to do a better job of caring for themselves, a lesson she learned later in life. Elders never visited a doctor before her freshman year in college.
"Women provide most of the nation's health care" through jobs and nurturing family members, but they "do not stop and take care of themselves," she said. "We've been so busy downstream pulling out bodies that we forgot to go upstream and fix the bridge."
She encouraged women to pay attention to diet, especially while growing up to develop a healthy body and future.
Elders called on the government to pass legislation making contraceptives more affordable.
As surgeon general in the Clinton administration, Elders pushed for comprehensive health education, including sex education, in schools. Her outspoken views led to her forced resignation in December 1994 after 15 months on the job. She was the first black woman to hold the position of surgeon general.
Elders is a professor of pediatrics at Arkansas Medical Center.