Fearless Females: Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

Dr. Walker wearing her medal.

In 245 years of American History, only one woman has ever received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the government’s highest and most prestigious military honor, and she did it back on Nov. 11, 1865. Meet woman of many trades – doctor, spy, abolitionist, P.O.W. – Dr. Mary Edwards Walker.

Mary Edwards was born Nov. 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York, to abolitionists Alvah and Vesta Whitcomb Walker. From a young age, they encouraged Mary to think for herself and allowed her to ditch the corsets and skirts expected of women in favor of “bloomers” (a dress combined with short pants), which would later lead her into the dress reform movement, which advocated for more reasonable and comfortable clothes for women.

Her parents believed that both boys and girls should be educated equally, so they started the first free school in Oswego, New York, to ensure their five daughters would learn the same things as their son. After that, Mary and two of her older sisters went to Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York. Mary never did stop wearing men’s clothes, as she felt they were more comfortable and hygienic.

Although Mary studied teaching, her real ambition was to become a doctor, something few women at the time dared contemplate, much less attempt. For her, teaching was a way to earn money for medical school. She attended Syracuse Medical College and received her medical degree in 1855—she was the second woman to graduate from the college, after Elizabeth Blackwell, whom we profiled in February.

Not long after graduation, Mary married fellow medical school student Albert Miller in a ceremony just as unconventional as fellow suffragist Lucy Stone’s. She refused to include “obey” in her wedding vows, kept her maiden name, and wore a short skirt and trousers instead of a traditional wedding dress. Husband and wife started their own medical practice in Rome, New York. Unfortunately, it was a complete failure because people did not trust a female doctor. The couple later divorced.

Her gender worked against her during the Civil War as well, when she was denied a post as a medical officer because she was a woman. Undeterred, Mary decided to volunteer as a surgeon at the U.S. Patent Office Hospital in Washington, but she was only allowed to be a nurse, not a surgeon. During her time there, she wore only trousers and shirts because they made her work easier. She also organized the Women’s Relief Organization to help families of the wounded.

In 1862, Mary moved to Virginia and started treating wounded soldiers near the front lines. She also wrote to the War Department in September of that year requesting to become a spy, but she was rejected. However, in 1863 her request to practice as a surgeon was finally accepted. She became the first female U.S. Army surgeon as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)” in Ohio.

Because she cared for all, Mary often crossed over Union and Confederate lines. In an ironic twist of fate, she was arrested in April 1864 by Confederate soldiers as a spy, the very occupation denied to her by the government. For the next four months, she was held as a prisoner of war in the notoriously brutal Castle Thunder outside of Richmond, Virginia, all the while refusing to wear the dresses provided to her. Later, when she was arrested in New Orleans for being dressed like a man, she famously said, “I don’t wear men’s clothes, I wear my own clothes.” She was eventually released as part of a prisoner exchange.

After the Civil War, Mary was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service by President Andrew Johnson for her time as a P.O.W, the result of which was partial muscular atrophy that qualified her for disability. She became a suffragist and even attempted to register to vote in 1871 under the popular suffragist philosophy that the Fourteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote but was turned away. Inspired by other women in politics like Victoria Woodhull, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Belva Lockwood, she ran for the U.S. Senate in 1881 and for Congress in 1890, both of which she lost.

In 1916, Mary’s Medal of Honor was revoked after the government decided she wasn’t really eligible, but she continued to wear it until her death in 1919 at the age of 86. She was buried wearing a black suit, still refusing in death to wear a dress. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter legally restored Mary’s Medal of Honor.

Mary told the world what she wished to be remembered for in 1897: “I am the original new woman…Before Lucy Stone, Mrs. [Amelia] Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were, I am. In the early ’40’s, when they began their work in dress reform, I was already wearing pants…I have made it possible for the bicycle girl to wear the abbreviated skirt, and I have prepared the way for the girl in knickerbockers.”

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