WOMEN IN HISTORY - MARY EDWARDS WALKER
Prisoner of war during the Civil War, writer, doctor, fashion trend-setter and the only female to receive the Medal of Honor
DATE OF BIRTH
November 26, 1832
PLACE OF BIRTH
Oswego, New York
DATE OF DEATH
February 21, 1919
PLACE OF DEATH
Oswego, New York
Mary was the youngest of five daughters, followed by one son, born to Alvah and Vesta Walker. Her father was a carpenter-farmer and abolitionist who believed in free thinking and many of the reform movements in the mid-1800s – including education and equality for his daughters, as well as dress reform (feeling their movements and abilities were impaired by the tight-fitting women’s clothing of the time). The girls provided farm labor, so their father did not expect them to wear restrictive corsets and such attire while working. He also intended all of his children to be educated and pursue professional careers.
Alvah built the town of Oswego’s first schoolhouse on his land and all of his children were educated there. Mary and two of her older sisters graduated from Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York, and became teachers, with Mary teaching in Minetto, New York in 1852. But early on she had shown an interest in her father’s medical books, so was encouraged to pursue this career. While teaching she saved money and, in December 1853, enrolled in Syracuse Medical College (the first medical school in the U.S. and one that equally accepted men and women). After three 13-week semesters of medical training, in which she paid $55 each semester, Mary graduated in June 1855. At 21 years old, she was the only woman in her class, and the second female doctor in the nation.
Mary led a life of controversy, most likely fostered by her father (also, the first Women’s Rights Convention was held in nearby Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848). She became an early supporter of women’s rights and passionately spoke about dress reform. When Amelia Bloom (in her Ladies’ Temperance Newspaper, the Lily) defended a colleague’s right to wear “Turkish pantaloons,” she unwittingly gave her name to them, as they came to be known as “bloomers.” Most early feminists stopped wearing them out of societal pressure and taunting (bloomers didn’t gain popular acceptance until the end of the century when women began bicycling), but not Mary. She heartily discarded restrictive attire, instead wearing pants, a high-collared undergarment and a dress coat that was gathered at the waist and ended just below the knees.
In 1856, at her wedding to Albert Miller, another physician, Mary wore trousers and a man’s coat. Their wedding vows did not include anything about ‘obeying.’ And she kept her own last name. They began a joint medical practice in Rome, New York, but many people were not ready for a woman physician so the practice floundered. (Mary had originally begun her own medical practice in Columbus, Ohio, her aunt’s hometown, but people there were also reluctant to see a woman physician.) Albert apparently was unfaithful and so, four years later, they separated with Mary moving into smaller rooms for living and working. Apparently, she did enjoy some success in her medical practice. The Rome Sentinel said of one of her ads, “Those … who prefer the skill of a female physician … have now an excellent opportunity to make their choice.”
In 1857, Mary began writing to Sybil, a publication of Dr. Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck. She wrote that women’s attire was a barrier to their good health and productive labor. She promoted her style of dress (much like that proposed by Amelia Bloomer), saying hoops under skirts and corsets restricted circulation in the legs, placed too much weight on the shoulders, and picked up dirt. And, she added, these styles made traveling cumbersome for women and annoying for men. Mary’s published opinions were printed in the program of the second Reform-Dress Association Convention in Syracuse and, that December, she lectured on it in Black River, New York. In 1860, she was one of nine vice presidents elected at the National Dress Reform Association Convention.
That same summer, Mary stayed with a family friend in Delhi, Iowa, hoping to secure a divorce (Iowa having more lenient laws), but she returned to Rome without the divorce the next summer, most likely due to the outbreak of the Civil War. In July 1861, just after the Battle of Bull Run, Mary went to Washington, D.C., to join the Army as a medical officer. She was denied, so she volunteered – serving as acting assistant surgeon at the hospital set up in the U.S. Patent Office. Her superior, Dr. J.N. Green, recommended that she be commissioned, but she never was. Her authority during this time grew to be comparable to Green’s. With her volunteer status, Mary could move about freely; she accompanied a severely wounded soldier home to Rhode Island. She also helped organize the Women’s Relief Association for lodging for wives, mothers and children of soldiers in Washington. On occasion, she brought these women to her home.
In 1862, Mary went to Forest Hall Prison in Georgetown, but felt her services were not especially needed so she returned to New York. She earned a second medical degree from Hygeia Therapeutic College and, by November, returned to Washington. After the Battle of Fredricksburg, Mary worked as a field surgeon near the Union front lines, treating soldiers in a tent hospital. She tried to increase positive outcomes by advising stretcher bearers to not carry wounded soldiers downhill with the head below the feet. Although she probably did not perform amputations, she felt many were unnecessary and encouraged several soldiers to refuse them.
In September 1863, Mary was appointed assistant surgeon to the 52nd Ohio Infantry in the Cumberland, based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and wore a slightly modified version of an officer’s uniform, carrying two pistols at all times. General George H. Thomas dispatched her, as the regiment’s previous doctor had died. The men were outraged; Dr. Perin, director of the medical staff, called it a “medical monstrosity” and requested a review by an Army medical board of Mary’s qualifications, doubting she knew much more than “most housewives.” Plus, many of the men believed, her many trips into Confederate territory to help civilians was a cover for spying.
On April 10, 1864, wearing her uniform, she walked into a band of Confederate soldiers just south of the Georgia-Tennessee border and was taken hostage. For four months Mary was imprisoned at Castle Thunder, near Richmond, Virginia. She complained about the lack of grain and vegetables for prisoners and the Confederates added wheat bread and cabbage to the rations. On August 12, 1864, she was exchanged, along with 24 other Union doctors, for 17 Confederate doctors. She was proud that her exchange was for a Confederate surgeon of the rank of major.
Mary returned to the Ohio 52nd as a contract surgeon (apparently the men had grown to respect her; she even visited the regiment after the war ended.) And she continued her appeal for a commission, which went all the way to President Lincoln, but was refused. In September she was granted $432.36 for her services from March 11, although she’d been imprisoned most of it. On October 5, 1864, Mary finally was commissioned, as acting assistant surgeon, with $100 monthly salary – becoming the first female surgeon commissioned in the Army. She served six months administering patients at the Louisville Women’s Prison Hospital and then finished out the war serving at an orphan asylum in Clarksville, Tennessee. She was discharged on June 15, 1865.
For all her wartime service, Mary was paid $766.16, and later received a monthly pension of $8.50 (later raised to $20) – less than some widows’ pensions. She had sustained an eye injury that led to partial muscular atrophy, which earned her the $8.50 pension. Believing the problem to be temporary, Mary had refused an earlier offer of $25 a month. As the problem intensified and interfered with her medical practice, in 1872, she asked for $24 a month, or a $100,000 lump sum. Her petition was rejected (reportedly because of her unorthodox wardrobe). In 1890, she finally was granted the $20 a month pension.
Upon recommendation of Major Generals William T. Sherman and George H. Thomas, on November 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill to present Dr. Mary Edwards Walker with the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service. The citation recognized her:
“valuable service to the Government,” devoting “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 enduring “hardships as a prisoner of war.” The citation also stated that “by reason of her not being a commissioned officer in the military service, a brevet or honorary rank cannot, under existing laws, be conferred upon her” so, therefore, “in the opinion of the President an honorable recognition of her services and sufferings should be made.”
Mary Edwards Walker was – and remains – the only woman ever to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor – the highest military award of the U.S. at the time.
In 1917, Congress revised the standards for the Medal of Honor to include only “actual combat with an enemy,” and took away the medals of 911 honorees, including Mary. But she refused to give it back, despite it becoming a crime to wear an ‘unearned’ medal. She had worn it, and continued to wear it, from the day she got it until she died. Mary’s great-grandniece Ann Walker fought for years to have the medal restored. Finally on June 11, 1977, President Carter reinstated Mary’s medal, citing her “distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex.” Today, it’s on display in the Pentagon’s women’s corridor.
After the war ended, Mary worked to get relief bills for war nurses, but the Congressional bills died in committee. She also began writing and lecturing throughout the U.S. and abroad on women’s rights, dress reform, health and temperance issues. She argued that tobacco resulted in paralysis and insanity, and women’s clothing was immodest and inconvenient. From 1866-67, she toured Great Britain. In 1866, she was elected president of the National Dress Reform Association. She was proud that she was arrested several times for ‘impersonating a man’ – she had taken to fully wearing men’s clothing, from the top hat, wing collar and bow tie to the pants and shoes. In September 1866, she helped Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone organize the Women’s Suffrage Association for Ohio. She also coordinated activities for the Central Women’s Suffrage Bureau.
In 1868, Mary and Belva Lockwood testified before the Judiciary Committee of the District of Columbia House of Delegates, on a bill to allow women in D.C. to vote. The bill failed. So she, Belva and five others filed petitions before the D.C. election board to be registered to vote. Mary argued, “You imprison women for crimes you have forbidden women to legislate upon.” The petition was denied. In 1872, she tried to vote in Oswego, while Susan B. Anthony was indicted and fined for illegally voting in Rochester.
Most of the suffrage leadership decided to fight for a constitutional amendment, rather than continuing the multiple fights for suffrage in the states. Mary adamantly believed the Constitution, with “We the People” being non-gender-specific, meant an amendment was unnecessary. She felt the suffragists needed state acts making restrictions on women’s voting rights null and void. Then, she felt, women could be electors for the House of Representatives. Here, Mary and the mainstream suffrage movement parted ways.
In 1869, Mary finally received her divorce from New York state. Two years later, she wrote her first book, “Hit,” which was a combination autobiography and commentary on divorce. She called for more equitable laws so wives and children could escape unhappy homes; this requiring women’s ability to vote. She wrote:
“[U]ntil women have a voice in making [laws], they must of necessity be imperfect, as are all laws, where … woman has had no voice in their making.”
She also believed marriage should be a “contract” between “equal” partners, writing:
“No young lady, when she is being courted … for a moment supposes that her lover can … ever wish her to be his slave.”
In 1878, Mary wrote her second book, “Unmasked, or The Science of Immortality,” about infidelity. (The Library of Congress catalogues this book under “sexual ethics” and “hygiene.” It has no record of “Hit.”)
In 1880, Mary’s father passed away, leaving her the Bunker Hill Farm. She lived here until she passed away, traveling from Oswego to Washington when necessary. She planned to use the farm as a colony to teach young single women farming and domestic skills before marriage. In April 1917, while World War I raged on, she offered Kaiser Wilhelm II her land as a site for a German-American peace conference.
In 1890, Mary declared herself a candidate for Congress in Oswego. The next year, she campaigned for a U.S. Senate seat and, the following year, paid her way to the Democratic National Convention.
In 1917, while in Washington, Mary fell on the Capitol steps. She was 85 years old and never fully recovered. She died two years later, on February 21, 1919, while staying at a neighbor’s home in Oswego. Almost penniless, Mary was not so much remembered for her service to her country as she was for being “that shocking female surgeon in trousers!” She was buried in the Rural Cemetery. That same year, the 19th Amendment was ratified.
In 1982, the U.S. Post Office issued a 20-cent stamp honoring Dr. Mary Walker as the first woman to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and as the second woman to graduate from a medical school in the U.S. In 2000, Mary Edwards Walker was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame at Seneca Falls, New York.
- Commire, Anne, editor. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Waterford, Conn: Yorkin Publications, 2000.
- Doherty, Kieran. Congressional Medal of Honor Recipients. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1998.
- Harness, Cheryl. Rabble Rousers: 20 Women Who Made a Difference. New York: Dutton Children's Books, 2003.
- Leonard, Elizabeth D. Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.
- Mikaelian, Allen. Medal of Honor: Profiles of America's Military Heroes from the Civil War to the Present. Hyperion Audiobooks, 2002.
- Roberts, Russell. American Women of Medicine. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2002.
- United States Congress, Committee on the Judiciary. Woman Suffrage: Hearings before the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, Sixty-second Congress, Second Session. February 14 [March 13] 1912. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1912. [Available at Cleveland Public Library (main branch) on microfiche.]
- Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor - Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, The Only Woman Medal of Honor Recipient and Slightly Ahead of Her Time
- Mary Walker, Medal of Honor Awardee – North Georgia Notables website
- About Mary Edwards Walker – Women's History website
- Mary Edwards Walker, Civil War Doctor – Woman of Courage profile written and produced by the St. Lawrence County, NY Branch of the American Association of University Women
" Let the generations know that women in uniform also guaranteed their freedom." ~ Dr. Mary Edwards Walker
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Women in History. Mary Edwards Walker biography. Last Updated: 2/27/2013. Women In History Ohio.
Women in History. Mary Edwards Walker biography. Last Updated: 2/27/2013. Women In History Ohio.
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