Mary Edwards Walker, 1832-1919

  • Mary-Edwards-Walker-WWP

Woman Category: Activism & Feminism, Army & Security Forces, and HealthWoman Tags: Abolitionist and Physician

  • HerStory

    Surgeon, abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate. The first and only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.

    Mary Edwards Walker was born in Oswego, New York. Her parents, Vesta and Alvah, were progressive who raised their children to independence and critical thinking. They did not obey the traditional gender roles, and while her mother worked at the farm, her father did household chores. To provide equal education to all of their children, they established the first free school in the city, which Walker attended until she went to the Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York. After graduation, she worked as a teacher until she saved enough money to pay for medical school. In 1855, at the age of 23, she graduated with honors from Syracuse Medical College – the only woman in her class and the second in the college’s history.
    From a young age, Walker preferred to wear men’s clothes instead of restricting and uncomfortable skirts, petticoats, and corsets. This preference, as well as her views of women’s role, were visible when she married Albert Miller, a fellow medical student. At the wedding, she refused to say “obey” in her vows, wore a short skirt with trousers instead of a dress, and kept her last name. In their short-lived marriage, the couple opened a practice in Rome, New York, but it failed because female physicians were frown-upon. At 28, Walker attended Bowen Collegiate Institute but got suspended after refusing to resign from the school’s male-only debating society. Over time, she became blunter, demonstrating dress reform, and by the age of 30, her typical outfit was a knee-length dress with a tight waist and full skirt with trousers and suspenders underneath. Even though she was often criticized and ridiculed, she kept advocating the idea that clothes should “protect the person, and allow freedom of motion and circulation, and not make the wearer a slave to it.”
    In 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Walker wanted to join the Union army as a surgeon but was rejected because of her gender. Instead, she volunteered as a civilian at the Patent Office Hospital in Washington, DC. There, she established a Women’s Relief Organization to help the families of wounded soldiers. In 1862, she moved to Virginia to treat soldiers near the front lines, and in the following year, she was hired by the Army of the Cumberland as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)” – the first female surgeon of the Union army. She insisted on wearing men’s clothes, which enable her to be more efficient in her work. Later she was assigned to the 52nd Ohio Infantry, regularly crossing the battle lines to treat civilians. On April 10, 1864, right after helping a Confederate doctor, Walker was captured by the Confederate army and was arrested as a spy. She was imprisoned at Castle Thunder in Richmond, Virginia, for four months before being released in a prisoner exchange.
    In 1865, Walker was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor for her work during the war (the first and only woman ever to receive it). In 1916, the medal was taken from her due to eligibility issues. More than 60 years later, her honor restored when President Jimmy Carter reinstated it.
    After the war, Walker worked as a supervisor at a female prison in Louisville, Kentucky, and later as head of an orphanage in Tennessee. She continued to lobby for dress reform and women’s rights. She was an active member of the central woman’s suffrage Bureau in Washington, DC, and in the elections of 1871, she unsuccessfully attempted to register to vote. Opposing the mainstream suffrage fight for a constitutional amendment, Walker argued that the Constitution already granted women the right to vote. Although she was not aligned with the movement, she continued to attend conventions and testified on its behalf in front of the US House of Representatives.
    Walker died in February 1919, only six months before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. She was buried in a black suit.

    “You must come to terms with the reality that nothing outside ourselves, be it people or things is actually responsible for our happiness”

    “You must come to terms with the reality that nothing outside ourselves, be it people or things is actually responsible for our happiness”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • In 1870, Walker was arrested in New Orleans for been dressed as a man. The arresting officer twisted her arm and asked her if she had ever had sex with a man.
    • Even in prison, she refused to wear women’s clothes.
    • She wrote two books that discussed women’s rights and dress reform.
    • She ran for Congress in 1890 and again in 1892 but lost both times.
    • The Mary Walker Health Center at SUNY Oswego is named in her honor.
    • A bronze statue of Walker is located in front of the Oswego, New York Town Hall since 2012.
    • The Dr. Mary Edwards Walker Inspiring Women in Surgery Award is named in her honor.
  • More About Her Legacy

    * The Presidential Medal of Honor (1865, 1977)
    * Inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame (2000)

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  • Woman Tags: Abolitionist, Physician

    The only woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

    The History Guy remembers a truly extraordinary Civil War heroine, Mary Edwards Walker. She was the only woman in United States history to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

    The History Guy uses images that are in the Public Domain. As photographs of actual events are often not available, I will sometimes use photographs of similar events or objects for illustration.

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