Mary Edwards Walker
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Mary Edwards Walker (November 26, 1832 – February 21, 1919) was an American feminist, abolitionist, prohibitionist, alleged spy, prisoner of war and surgeon. She is the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor.
Prior to the American Civil War she earned her medical degree, married and started a medical practice. The practice didn't do well and she volunteered with the Union Army at the outbreak of the American Civil War and served as a female surgeon. 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 United States military's highest decoration for bravery, the Medal of Honor, for her efforts during the war. She is the only woman to receive the medal and one of only eight civilians to receive it. Her medal was later rescinded based on an Army determination and then restored in 1977. After the war she was a writer and lecturer supporting the women's suffrage movement until her death in 1919.
Walker worked on her family farm as a child. She did not wear women's clothing during farm labor, because she considered them too restricting. Her elementary education consisted of going to the local school where her mother taught. As a young woman, she taught at the school to earn enough money to pay her way through Syracuse Medical College, where she graduated as a medical doctor in 1855 as the only woman in her class. She married a fellow medical school student, Albert Miller, and 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.
At the beginning of the American Civil War, she volunteered for the Union Army as a civilian. At first, she was only allowed to practice as a nurse, as the Army had no female surgeons. 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 the Battle of Fredericksburg and in Chattanooga after the Battle of Chickamauga. Finally, she was awarded a commission as a "Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)" by the Army of the Cumberland in September 1863, becoming the first-ever female U.S. Army Surgeon.
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.
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.
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 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 2.36 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 0 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.
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 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.
For all her wartime service, Mary was paid 6.16, and later received a monthly pension of .50 (later raised to ) – less than some widows’ pensions. She had sustained an eye injury that led to partial muscular atrophy, which earned her the .50 pension. Believing the problem to be temporary, Mary had refused an earlier offer of a month. As the problem intensified and interfered with her medical practice, in 1872, she asked for a month, or a 0,000 lump sum. Her petition was rejected (reportedly because of her unorthodox wardrobe). In 1890, she finally was granted the 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.
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.
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 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 ratifie
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