American radical and only female recipient of the Medal of Honor
“You must come to terms with the reality that nothing outside ourselves, be it people or things is actually responsible for our happiness.”
~ Dr. Mary Edwards Walker
‘Freethinker’ Dr. Mary Edwards lived her remarkable life strictly on her terms. The outspoken suffragist rebelled against social standards from an early age, famously rejecting women’s clothing styles and the expected roles of her gender. She graduated from medical school when women were expected to be the caretaker of their home, and later served in the Civil War as the first female surgeon in U.S. Army History. Her bravery earned her the nation’s highest military award. After the war, she supported women’s suffrage, equality, and the dress reform movement, both in the U.S. and abroad, as an author and lecturer.
Dr. Walker, the fifth daughter to Alvah Walker and Vesta Whitcomb, was born on November 26, 1832, in Oswego Town, New York. Her family lived on a thirty-five-acre farm they’d christened ‘Bunker Hill.’ Their home was modestly furnished, but dominated by books. Her parents encouraged curiosity and pushed each of their children to question norms. Education was of clear-cut importance in the Walker household, so much so that they built the first free schoolhouse in the area on their property.
The lessons at ‘Bunker Hill,’ both in school and at home, prepared Dr. Walker to do great things. They gave her the confidence to dress as she pleased, get an education, and fight for her country.
Her interest in dress reform began in the 1840s. Both parents had dealt with lingering illnesses, and they read medical books to learn more about hygiene and the human body. Her father became an adamant believer in the benefits of personal hygiene and felt that corsets’ and other tight clothing harmed young females’ health. This realization, along with strict adherence to alcohol and tobacco temperance, informed Mary’s childhood. Her views deepened in medical school as she discovered the negative physical impact of each during her studies.
Dr. Walker felt that women’s clothes did not allow for freedom of movement and circulation in the same way as men’s clothing. They were also expensive, unsafe, unhealthy, and unsanitary, and she refused to wear them — regardless of what others thought. This line of thinking was in stark contrast to the Victorian Era sensibilities in the country at the time.
Her studies had shown her the adverse effects of women’s clothing, and if society hadn’t drawn the same conclusion, then she believed that society was wrong. She also felt that there was an element of control involved. Men controlled women’s dress because, in their minds, allowing women the independence of attire would give them the freedom of thought. Dr. Walker believed that if men were indeed the protectors of women, they’d protect them from wearing clothes that negatively impacted their health.
She wasn’t willing to wait for that to happen. Women were capable of doing everything men did, and leveling the playing field by changing their burdensome, constricting clothing, would allow them to take the necessary steps to prove their equality. Reforming women’s dress was a vital component of their emancipation.
In her youth, Dr. Walker wore a skirt over a pair of men’s pants. She lamented that regardless of the length of the dress she wore (it was always a variation of calf-length), someone found a way to voice their negative opinion. During the war, Dr. Walker modified the Union officer’s uniform, adding a calf-length skirt over her pants. After the war, she further simplified her attire, often wearing a ‘dress reform undersuit’ of her design and an overcoat.
Her choice of clothing caused near-universal scorn. More than once was chased away by an unruly crowd for wearing pants instead of a dress. She’d also been arrested on multiple occasions for dressing like a man. Despite the harassment, Dr. Walker refused to change her wardrobe for her detractors, instead celebrating the benefits of the less expensive, more comfortable, and easier to wear men’s clothes. Furthermore, she appreciated the utility of deep pockets.
Responding to criticism that she enjoyed wearing masculine clothes, Dr. Walker replied, “I don’t wear men’s clothes, I wear my own clothes.” Her mantra resonated with others In 1866 she was elected president of the National Dress Reform Association.
She was acutely aware of the political statement she made and frustrated by conservative suffragists who elected to wear more traditionally acceptable clothing in public. Dr. Walker felt, especially later in life, that those women were more concerned about getting what she believed were ‘unnecessary amendments’ passed rather than focusing on things that mattered. ‘We the People,’ the first three words of the Constitution’s Preamble, were not gender-specific, so amending it to note separate male and female rights were not worth the movement’s energies.
Medical School and Marriage
In December 1853, after teaching for two years in Minetto, New York, to earn money to go to medical school, Mary Edwards Walker was accepted into Syracuse Medical College — one of the few medical schools in the country that accepted women as students at the time. Over the next year-and-a-half, she excelled in her coursework and graduated with a Doctorate in Medicine on February 20, 1855. She was the only woman in her graduating class.
After practicing for a short time in Columbus, Ohio, Mary married fellow student — and fellow physician — Dr. Albert Miller on November 16, 1855. Ever the non-conformist, Dr. Walker omitted the word ‘obey’ from her vows and refused to change her last name. She wore trousers underneath a short skirt in place of a wedding dress.
Shortly after their marriage, the husband and wife team set-up a joint practice in Rome, New York. However, people didn’t trust a female physician with their health, so few did business with them. Without patients, the practice faltered. Despite her business failure, Dr. Walker did achieve success in medicine. In the late 1850s, she became the first American woman to perform general surgery.
Mary and Dr. Miller separated after two years of marriage due to Albert’s serial infidelity. She was granted a divorce by the New York State Supreme Court on September 16, 1861. To hold on to legal rights he stood to lose after the divorce was completed, Dr. Miller tied up the court system to prolong the process. Due to Albert’s legal wrangling, the couple’s divorce wasn’t officially finalized until January 2, 1869.
She had her share of suitors, but Dr. Walker would never get married again.
The Civil War
In 1861, Dr. Walker submitted to serve in the Army as a commissioned medical officer but was refused because she was a woman. Wanting to offer her services to the cause, she volunteered as an assistant surgeon at the U.S. Patent Office Hospital in Washington, D.C. By 1862, Dr. Walker was an unpaid field surgeon working near the front lines at Fredericksburg and Chattanooga. Throughout the war, she wore men’s clothing to make her job more manageable.
She became the first female U.S. Army surgeon in history in September 1863, after receiving her commission as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)” by the Army of the Cumberland. While serving as an assistant surgeon with the 52nd Ohio Infantry, she often crossed enemy lines to treat civilians and soldiers in need. There was a prevailing, but never proven, belief that she was a spy gathering information for the North army. In either case, on April 10, 1864, she was arrested by Confederate troops and accused of being a spy.
Dr. Walker was taken to Castle Thunder Prison in Richmond, Virginia, and placed in the female ward. Conditions were awful. The prison was dirty, and rats were everywhere, the food was infested with maggots, and water was only given to prisoners at the guards’ discretion. Dr. Walker was also hammered in the Confederate press, giddy that the Confederacy had managed to capture a ‘female Yankee surgeon.’ The attacks continued throughout her time as a prisoner-of-war, ridiculing her male-like attire and her North-friendly views. The awful conditions of her situation weakened her, but she never was defeated.
On August 12, 1864, she was part of a prisoner exchange. Both the North and South armies were in desperate need of surgeons, so Dr. Walker and two dozen Union doctors were part of a prisoner exchange for seventeen Confederate surgeons. The news of her release was reported throughout the United States.
In October, Dr. Walker was again commissioned as an acting assistant surgeon. Until her discharge on June 15, 1865, she served at the Louisville Women’s Prison Hospital and an orphan asylum in Clarksville, Tennessee.
The Medal of Honor
On November 11, 1865, based on the recommendations of Major Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George Henry Thomas, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill presenting Dr. Walker with the Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest award for valor. This action made her the first woman to receive the award.
President Johnson wrote it part that:
“[Walker] has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war.”
The Army remained unwilling to give her a major’s commission and effectively terminated her military contract. Those involved believed that the award from the president would be a suitable second option.
Dr. Walker was incredibly proud of her medal, wearing it on her shirt in public everywhere she went.
In 1916 the Army reviewed their Medal of Honor recipients and amended to rules to qualify for the award. On February 15, 1917, they removed the names of Dr. Walker and 911 male recipients. The majority of those removed were from the 27th Maine Infantry, who, in June of 1863, received Medals of Honor for re-enlisting.
Dr. Walker was asked to return the medal but refused — a Federal crime. She told the Government that they would “receive it over [her] dead body,” and continued to wear it for the rest of her life.
In 1977, the Army Board of Corrections overturned the 1917 ruling to strip Dr. Walker of the Medal of Honor and re-established her name alongside the other recipients.
She is the country’s only female Medal of Honor recipient.
Two years later, at 8 a.m on February 22, 1919, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker passed away at Bunker Hill. She was buried in a black suit in her family plot.
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker lived her life, believing that she could accomplish anything she set out to do. Unwilling to kowtow to the word ‘no’ despite the formidable challenges associated with her gender and humble upbringing, Dr. Walker became a surgeon, suffragist, author, abolitionist, reformer, and advocate for women’s rights.
- In 1982, a 20-cent stamp was issued in Dr. Walker’s honor commemorating the 150th Anniversary of her birth.
- In 2000, Mary Edwards Walker was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame at Seneca Falls, New York.
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“Mary Walker Part II — The Legacy Center.” Drexel University, College of Medicine, Archives & Special Collections:. https://archives.drexelmed.edu/blog/?p=333.
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The Norfolk post.. November 25, 1865, 1. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85038624/1865-11-25/ed-1/seq-1/#date1=1865&index=11&rows=20&words=honor+medal&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=&date2=1865&proxtext=medal+of+honor&y=16&x=19&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1.