Why you should care
This Civil War doctor fought for women’s rights and dress reform, and lost a Medal of Honor in the process.
She was a woman ahead of her time. Way ahead. Yet not everyone is aware of the force that was Dr. Mary Edwards Walker: a feminist, abolitionist, prohibitionist and suffrage activist. She devoted her personal and professional life to medical excellence and championing human rights — before, during and after the Civil War. For her wartime service, Walker is theonly woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award for military bravery offered by the United States of America — an award that was rescinded and then reinstated.
And she did it all while wearing pants.
Walker is the only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, her nation’s highest award for military bravery.
Mary Walker was destined to be a freedom fighter. Born in 1832 to a free-thinking father who believed in equality and education for all, she worked on the family farm in men’s clothes, alongside her four sisters. Both parents were against restrictive women’s clothing, favoring trousers and pantsuits over corsets and dresses. Walker went on to be arrested on several occasions for “impersonating a man.” In the military she wore “radical” bloomers and a man’s uniform jacket, and later in life she wore a full tuxedo while giving lectures about women’s rights. She even got married in pants (and, shocking for the times, kept her own name ; Walker staunchly opposed male-dominated wedding vows).
Scorn of Walker’s wardrobe choices persisted even into the 1990s. Said a history professor to Walker’s great-grandniece Ann Walker, ”She was always imitating men, and if she had dressed like a lady, she would have had a larger role in history,”
Oh, but she did play a large role in history.
At age 23, Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College, an education that she paid for herself. After becoming the second-ever American woman to finish physician training, she ran her own medical practice for six years. When the Civil War began in 1861, Walker was ready to join up, but the Union Army didn’t hire women doctors. So she volunteered as a nurse, treating wounded soldiers at the Battle of Bull Run in Virginia. Finally in the following year, she was appointed an assistant surgeon with the 52nd Ohio Infantry — the first American woman to be a military doctor — and chose not to share the sole surgeon’s paycheck.
During the war, Walker crusaded against “senseless,” unhygienic and barbaric amputations that contributed to high mortality rates, and she refused to follow the standard procedures practiced in the operating room. Even when it meant crossing Confederate lines to treat soldiers and civilians, she went. When Walker was captured by Confederate troops and held for four months, she continued to work as a contract surgeon.
Let the generations know that women in uniform also guaranteed their freedom.
Walker’s wartime service was recognized by the Medal of Honor; the citation signed by President Andrew Johnson on November 11, 1865, praised Walker for 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.” But during the “Purge of 1917,” a movement to crack down on fraudulent medal copies, the awards given to Walker and roughly 900 other recipients were revoked. On what grounds? No supporting proof of “valor of combat.” The Army demanded that Walker hand over her medal. She flatly and fiercely refused, proudly sporting the award until her death in 1919 — the same year that the 19th Amendment allowed women to vote.