On this date in 1832 a true American hero and pioneer was born. Mary Edwards Walker was born in the town of Oswego, NY, the youngest of five daughters in a farming family. While working on the farm, she refused to wear women’s clothes, finding them too cumbersome and restrictive, beginning a lifelong spirit of dress reform. She attended a local school then became a teacher until she had earned enough money to go to medical school. The only woman in her class, she graduated as a medical doctor in 1855–TSM readers might remember me celebrating Elizabeth Blackwell, the very first female doctor.
Her initial medical practice was not successful, as women doctors were looked upon with suspicion and distrust–a consequence of confronting a dominant discourse. She left upstate New York for Iowa in 1860 and briefly returned to school; this ended abruptly when the college suspended her for refusing to quit the debate team, which was historically all male–I guess only men know how to debate (?)
Soon after this the U.S. Civil War began and Walker volunteered for the medical corps. She was only offered employment as a nurse but often worked unpaid as a field surgeon at the front lines. Finally, in 1863, she became the first woman employed by the U.S. Army as a surgeon. In April 1864 she stayed behind after a battle to help a Confederate doctor perform an amputation; captured by the Confederate army (how’s that for gratitude?), she was held as a prisoner of war for four months, after which she returned to her duties.
When the war was over, Walker was recommended for the Medal of Honor by General William Tecumseh Sherman. President Johnson signed the bill approving the award. Walker is one of only eight civilians and the only woman ever to receive this honor.
Building on this accolade — and sadly acknowledging that outside of the battlefield she was unlikely to succeed in medical practice — she became renowned as a lecturer. She spoke and wrote frequently on health care. A staunch abolitionist before the war, she also spoke on civil rights, expanding into suffrage and other early feminist issues. She was also a dress reform pioneer, finding men’s clothing more comfortable and convenient. She was arrested a number of times for “impersonating a man” solely because of her attire.
Sadly, as with many of her peers, she died before suffrage passed in the U.S., on February 21, 1919. She had a simple funeral but was honored with the military tradition of a flag-draped casket. She was also buried in her favorite man’s dress suit. Dr. Walker has been honored with many posthumous accolades, including the use of her name for medical facilities. The Whitman-Walker clinic in Washington, DC is named for her and for fellow civil war medic, and one of my personal heroes, Walt Whitman, who served as a nurse.