In these difficult times we wish to recognize the heroics of the health-care professionals who are saving lives every day by honoring those of the past. Some of those may have been suffragists. All were brave.
Mary Edwards Walker – 1832 – 1919
Mary Edwards Walker was born in 1832 in Oswego NY to progressive parents who believed in educating their daughters as well as their sons. Following in the footsteps of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a medical license, Mary graduated as a medical doctor from Syracuse Medical College in 1855. That same year she married Albert Miller, but did not take his name, and insisted the word “obey” be eliminated from their marriage vows. The marriage was not a happy one, and they divorced in 1869.
Mary’s first campaign for equality centered on dress reform. Following the lead of Amelia Jenks Bloomer, she rebelled against the restrictive, heavy clothing that women were expected to wear, and opted instead for the more comfortable bloomer costume. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Mary immediately volunteered as a surgeon in the Union Army, but was denied an appointment because of her sex. She worked as a volunteer nurse until 1863 when she was finally appointed the first female US Army surgeon.
Conditions during the war were brutal, and Mary often crossed over the lines to help whoever needed it, sometimes assisting confederate soldiers and civilians. This led to her capture by the confederate troops and her confinement in a prisoner of war camp for four months. While a prisoner she refused to wear women’s clothing. Men’s clothes were more comfortable, she argued, and much easier to work in. She was released in a prisoner exchange, and returned to active duty, assigned to work in a women’s prison. In 1865 President Johnson presented her with the Congressional Medal of Honor for her contribution to the war effort, the only woman to be so honored.
After the war Mary turned her attention to other reform movements, advocating for temperance, and working for woman suffrage. In 1871 she attempted to vote, but was turned away, and then ran for Congress, but suffered defeat. She continued to work for dress reform, often dressing as a man, insisting on her right to do so, and asserting again that men’s clothing was more comfortable and less restrictive. She attracted much negative attention for her choice.
In 1917 her Medal of Honor was revoked, along with 910 others, ostensibly because there was no record of the occasion of its award. Mary refused to surrender the medal, and wore it for the rest of her life. It wasn’t until 1977 that it was officially restored by President Jimmy Carter, and her efforts to save lives during the Civil War were again recognized.
Mary Edwards Walker was an eccentric figure to the end of her life, with her championing of various reforms sometimes evoking criticism and derision. But her work as a physician and advocate for women’s rights still resonates today, and she is remembered for leading the way in reforms that allowed women to dress in a more comfortable and healthy way. Thank you, Mary Edward Walker, MD.