Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, US Civil War Surgeon and suffragist
Isn’t it amazing that only one woman has ever been awarded the Medal of Honor? This woman was quite a character and a true non-conformist, especially for her time. She advocated for women’s rights and served her country as a doctor, war-time surgeon and women’s advocate.
She created quite a stir and was often surrounded by controversy. But she stood her ground for what she believed in.
Who was Mary Edwards Walker?
Mary Walker was born in 1832 and raised in Oswego, NY by parents who taught her and her six siblings to ask questions and think for themselves. On the family farm she often wore trousers and shirts because they were more comfortable and allowed greater freedom of movement than accepted women’s clothing.
Her father was a self-taught doctor, and she became interested in his profession. She earned her medical degree at Syracuse Medical College, one of the few to admit women, and she was only the second woman to earn the degree. After graduating in 1855, she married Albert Miller and they set up practice together.
The practice failed, possibly because many people refused to allow a woman to treat them. The couple did not remain married long. She retained her maiden name and wore an unorthodox wedding dress. Her husband did not approve.
What is the Medal of Honor?
The Medal of Honor is the countries highest military honor awarded for valor. It recognizes the recipient who:
…distinguishes himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.(from the US Congressional Medal of Honor Society website, www.cmohs.org)
The award is given for acts of bravery under fire. These acts must go above and beyond the call of duty and be performed during a conflict. Originally, only enlisted seamen and marines were eligible to receive the Navy Medal of Honor.
Over the years, the design changed and each branch of the military established their own Medal of Honor. In 1958, under Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society was established. All recipients from all military branches belong to it.
How did this woman earn it?
Mary Edwards Walker attempted to join the Union Army in 1961 at the beginning of the Civil War. Because of her gender, she was denied a commission, so she volunteered as a surgeon. She established the Women’s Relief Organization that gave assistance to families who visited their wounded soldiers in the local hospitals.
In 1862, she volunteered as a field surgeon near Fredericksburg and Chattanooga, Tennessee. By 1863, her medical expertise recognized, she accepted a position as the first female US Army Surgeon (the equivalent of a lieutenant or captain) as a contracted civilian. Finally, she received pay for her services.
During this time, she frequently crossed enemy lines to treat civilians and soldiers from both sides. In 1864, the Confederate Army captured and accused her of spying. Eventually, she was released in a prisoner exchange.
In 1865, President Andrew Jackson signed a bill recognizing her actions above and beyond the call of duty and awarding her the Army Medal of Honor.
Woman physician and feminist
Dr. Edward’s accomplishments as an army surgeon are only part of her outstanding achievements. She also was a staunch supporter of women’s rights and advocated for the improvement of women’s clothing.
Edwards and other feminists argued that tight corsets and heavy skirts were unhealthy. They claimed that they restricted what women were capable of doing. Edwards began wearing “The Bloomer Dress,” pants covered by a knee length skirt. It was popularly worn by feminists and was her wedding dress.
The “Bloomer Dress” fell out of favor, causing too much controversy that detracted from suffragettes’ efforts to gain voting rights. Women were ridiculed and harassed for wearing the costume in public. However, Mary Edwards Walker continued to wear it as her uniform of choice during her service as army surgeon and later.
A one woman controversy
By the late 1870s, Dr. Walker had adopted men’s clothing as her usual attire, including a top hat. As you can imagine, this caused quite the stir. She was often arrested for impersonating a man. Her response was, “I don’t wear men’s clothes. I wear my own clothes.”
She believed she should be allowed to wear pants because they gave her more freedom of movement. For her they were more comfortable and she thought women should be allowed to wear what they wanted. She further argued that Congress gave her permission to wear it.
In addition to wearing men’s clothing, she tried to register to vote in 1871. Then she ran for the Senate in 1881 and Congress in 1890, even though she herself could not vote. She also testified before the House of Representatives in support of women’s voting rights.
A woman scorned, a medal denied
In 1916, an army board began reviewing their medal of honor recipients. After applying updated criteria, a total of 911 medals were taken away. Most of these awards had questionable merit. Few of the recipients had faced action under fire. Others were only Lincoln’s funeral guard.
Five were taken from civilian army scouts who had received them, despite their valorous acts, because they did not hold military commissions. Under the revised criteria, civilians could not receive the award, not even William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. These medals were restored in 1989.
In 1917, Dr. Walker’s medal was rescinded. The reason was that she had never held an army commission, so therefore was ineligible. She wasn’t allowed the commission that she had sought because she was a woman. She refused to return her medal and continued to wear it until her death.
In 1919, Dr. Walker died and was buried in her black suit in Rural Cemetery, Oswego, NY.
In the 1920s, a campaign began to restore Dr. Walker’s medal of honor recognition. Finally in 1977, President Jimmy Carter returned the honor. Today, this medal resides in the Women’s Corridor of the Pentagon while her original medal is displayed in the Richardson-Bates House Museum in Oswego, NY.
Pat Davis, a retired teacher and editor of Simply Living and Living Simply, lives with her husband and neurotic cat, Neko. She loves to read, write, travel, bake, garden, sew, and craft. Top writer in Food and Cooking.