Mary Edwards Walker (November 26, 1832 – February 21, 1919) was an American feminist, abolitionist, prohibitionist, alleged spy, prisoner of war and surgeon. As of 2015, she is the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor.
In 1855 she earned her medical degree at Syracuse Medical College in New York, married and started a medical practice.
She volunteered with the Union Army at the outbreak of the American Civil War and served as a surgeon at a temporary hospital in Washington, DC, even though at the time women and sectarian physicians were considered unfit for the Union Army Examining Board.
She was captured by Confederate forces after crossing enemy lines to treat wounded civilians and arrested as a spy. She was sent as a prisoner of war to Richmond, Virginia, until released in a prisoner exchange.
After the war, she was approved for the highest United States Armed Forces decoration for bravery, the Medal of Honor, for her efforts during the Civil War.
She is the only woman to receive the medal and one of only eight civilians to receive it. Her name was deleted from the Army Medal of Honor Roll in 1917; however it was restored in 1977. After the war, she was a writer and lecturer supporting the women’s suffrage movement until her death in 1919.
Mary Edwards Walker was born in the Town of Oswego, New York, on November 26, 1832, the daughter of Alvah (father) and Vesta (mother) Walker. She was the youngest of seven children: she had five sisters and one brother. Alvah and Vesta raised their both their son and their daughters in a progressive manner that was revolutionary for the time.
Their nontraditional parenting nurtured Mary’s spirit of independence and sense of justice that she actively demonstrated throughout her life.
While they were devoted Christians, the Walkers were “free thinkers” that raised their children to question the regulations and restrictions of various denominations. The Walker parents also demonstrated non-traditional gender roles to their children regarding sharing work around the farm: Vesta often participated in heavy labor while Alvah took part in general household chores.
Walker worked on her family farm as a child. She did not wear women’s clothing during farm labor, because she considered it too restricting. Her mother reinforced her views that corsets and tight lacings were unhealthy.
Her elementary education consisted of going to the local school that her parents started. The Walkers were determined that their daughters be as well-educated as their son, so they founded the first free school house in Oswego in the later 1830s. After finishing primary school, Mary and two of her older sisters attended Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York.
Falley was not only an institution of higher learning, but a place that emphasized modern social reform in gender roles, education, and hygiene.
Its ideologies and practices further cemented Mary’s determination to defy traditional feminine standards on a principle of injustice. In her free time, Mary would pour over her father’s medical texts on anatomy and physiology; her interest in medicine is accredited to her exposure to medical literature at an early age.
As a young woman, she taught at a school in Minetto, New York, to eventually earn enough money to pay her way through Syracuse Medical College (now the State University of New York Upstate Medical University), where she graduated with honors as a medical doctor in 1855 as the only woman in her class.
She married a fellow medical school student, Albert Miller, on November 16, 1855, shortly before Mary turned 23. Mary wore a short skirt with trousers underneath, refused to include “obey” in her vows, and retained her last name, all characteristic of her obstinate nonconformity.
They set up a joint practice in Rome, New York. The practice did not flourish, as female physicians were generally not trusted or respected at that time. They later divorced, on account of Miller’s infidelity.
Walker briefly attended Bowen Collegiate Institute (later named Lenox College) in Hopkinton, Iowa, in 1860, until she was suspended for refusing to resign from the school’s debating society, which until she joined had been all male.
Inspired by her parents’ novel standard of dressing for health purposes, Mary was infamous for contesting traditional female wardrobe.
In 1871, she wrote, “The greatest sorrows from which women suffer to-day are those physical, moral, and mental ones, that are caused by their unhygienic manner of dressing!” She strongly opposed women’s long skirts with numerous petticoats not only for their discomfort and their inhibition to the wearer’s mobility, but for their collection and spread of dust and dirt.
She began experimenting with various skirt-lengths and layers, all with men’s trousers underneath as a young woman. By 1861, her typical ensemble of choice included trousers with suspenders under a knee-length dress with a tight waist and full skirt.
While encouraged by her family, Mary’s wardrobe choices were often met with criticism. As a schoolteacher on her way home, she was assaulted by a neighboring farmer and a group of boys, who chased her and attacked her with eggs and other launched items.
Female colleagues in medical school criticized her choices, and patients often gawked and teased her. Nevertheless, Mary was persistent in her mission to reform women’s dress. Her view that women’s dress should “protect the person, and allow freedom of motion and circulation, and not make the wearer a slave to it” made her commitment to dress reform as great as her zeal for abolitionism.
She famously wrote to the women’s journal, The Sibyl: A Review of the Tastes, Errors, and Fashions of Society, about her vendetta against women’s fashion, amongst other things, for its causation of poor health, its expense, and its contribution to the dissolution of marriages. Her literature contributed to the spread of her ideas, and made her a popular figure amongst other feminists and female physicians.
At the beginning of the American Civil War, she volunteered for the Union Army as a civilian. The U.S. Army had no female surgeons, and at first she was only allowed to practice as a nurse.
During this period, she served at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), July 21, 1861, and at the Patent Office Hospital in Washington, D.C. She worked as an unpaid field surgeon near the Union front lines, including at the Battle of Fredericksburg and in Chattanooga after the Battle of Chickamauga.
As a suffragette, she was happy to see women serving as soldiers and alerted the press to the case of Frances Hook in Ward 2 of the Chattanooga hospital, a woman who served in the Union forces disguised as a man.
In September 1862, Walker wrote to the War Department requesting employment as a spy, but her proposal was declined. In September 1863, she was employed as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)” by the Army of the Cumberland, becoming the first female surgeon employed by the U.S. Army Surgeon.
Walker was later appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. During her service, she frequently crossed battle lines and treated civilians.
On April 10, 1864, she was captured by Confederate troops and arrested as a spy, just after she finished helping a Confederate doctor perform an amputation. She was sent to Castle Thunder in Richmond, Virginia, and remained there until August 12, 1864, when she was released as part of a prisoner exchange.
While she was imprisoned, she refused to wear the clothes provided because they were more “becoming of her sex”. Walker was exchanged for a Confederate surgeon from Tennessee on August 12, 1864.
She went on to serve during the Battle of Atlanta and later as supervisor of a female prison in Louisville, Kentucky, and as the head of an orphanage in Tennessee.
After serving in the war, Walker became disabled. She was awarded a disability pension for partial muscular atrophy while she was imprisoned during the war. She was given $8.50 a month beginning June 13, 1865, but in 1899 that amount was raised to $20 per month.
She became a writer and lecturer, supporting such issues as health care, temperance, women’s rights, and dress reform for women. She was frequently arrested for wearing men’s clothing and insisted on her right to wear clothing that she thought appropriate.
She wrote two books that discussed women’s rights and dress. She replied to criticism of her attire: “I don’t wear men’s clothes, I wear my own clothes.”
Walker supported the women’s suffrage movement. She was a member of the central woman’s suffrage Bureau in Washington. During her time as a member, she solicited funds to endow a chair for a woman professor at Howard University medical school.
Walker attempted to register to vote in 1871, but was turned away. The initial stance of the movement, taking Dr. Walker’s lead, was to claim that women already had the right to vote, and Congress needed only to enact enabling legislation. After a number of fruitless years advocating this position, the movement promoted the adoption of a constitutional amendment.
This was diametrically opposed to Mary Walker’s position, and she fell out of favor with the movement. She continued to attend conventions of the suffrage movement and distribute her own brand of literature, but was virtually ignored by the rest of the movement. Her penchant for wearing male-style clothing, including a top hat, only exacerbated the situation. She received a more positive reception in England than in the United States.
In 1907, Walker published a work on “Crowning Constitutional Argument”. Walker argued that some states, as well as the Constitution, had already granted women the right to vote. She testified on women’s suffrage before committees of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1912 and 1914.
After a long illness, Walker died at home on February 21, 1919, from natural causes at the age of 87 and is buried in Rural Cemetery in Oswego, New York. She had a plain funeral with an American flag draped over her casket. She was buried in her black suit instead of a dress. Her death in 1919 came one year before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guaranteed women the right to vote.
After the war, Walker was recommended for the Medal of Honor by Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George Henry Thomas. On November 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill to present her the medal.
In 1917, the U.S. Congress created a pension act for Medal of Honor recipients and in doing so created separate Army and Navy Medal of Honor Rolls. Only the Army decided to review eligibility for inclusion on the Army Medal of Honor Roll.
The 1917 Medal of Honor Board deleted 911 names from the Army Medal of Honor Roll, including those of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker and William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. None of the 911 recipients were ordered to return their medals, although on the question of whether the recipients could continue to wear their medals, the Judge Advocate General advised the Medal of Honor Board that there was no obligation on the Army to police the matter. Walker continued to wear her medal until her death.
President Jimmy Carter restored her medal posthumously in 1977. She was one of six people to regain the award.
Walker felt like she was awarded the Medal of Honor because she went into enemy territory to care for the suffering inhabitants when no man had the courage to respond in fear of being imprisoned. She had no fear of being imprisoned; resulting in her doing what her calling was, which was a doctor.
Walker was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000.