by Judd Proctor and Brian Burns
Known for her determination and strength of conviction, Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919) is also remembered as the only woman to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor in the United States military, for her service during the Civil War.
Born into the abolitionist family of Alvah and Vesta Whitcomb Walker in Oswego, N.Y., on Nov. 26, 1832, Walker’s future relied heavily on her experiences as a child and the encouragement of her father. He planned for all his children to be educated, even building the town’s first schoolhouse on his land. Also a self-taught country doctor, it would be his collection of medical books that first sparked Walker’s interest in pursuing a medical career.
Walker was the youngest of five daughters and had a younger brother, Alvah. All in the Walker household provided labor for their farm, so their father did not require the girls to wear the women’s garb of the time but, instead, attire better suited to the labors of farming. Her parents believed tight-fitting women’s clothing items like corsets were unhealthy. This notion would follow Walker in her own pursuit of women’s rights and women’s dress reform.
Early on, Walker challenged convention by attending medical school. She graduated in June of 1855 from Syracuse Medical College, the United States’ first medical school to accept women and men equally. Medical training there consisted of three 13-week semesters, for which she paid $165.
In 1856, Walker married former student Albert Miller while wearing a man’s coat and trousers. Keeping her last name, Walker and Miller moved to Rome, N.Y., where they began a joint medical practice. But it seemed people of the time were not receptive to seeing a woman physician, and their practice stalled.
Their marriage also suffered since Miller was unfaithful. They separated four years later, and Walker struck out on her own and established her own practice. Unlike her failed attempt in Columbus, Ohio, before her marriage, this new practice seemed to be successful. One of her ads in the Rome Sentinel read, “Those … who prefer the skill of a female physician … have now an excellent opportunity to make their choice.”
With her own beliefs grounded in her upbringing, Walker remained in Rome and began advocating for social reform and writing for the magazine Sybil in 1857. She believed women’s attire at the time restricted a woman’s freedom of movement and was a barrier to good physical and mental health. Corsets and hoop skirts, she asserted, restricted circulation to the legs and added too much weight for ease of movement. In 1871 she wrote, “The greatest sorrows from which women suffer to-day [sic], are those physical, moral and mental ones, that are caused by their unhygienic manner of dressing!”
Walker’s writing appeared in Reform-Dress Association Convention programs and, in 1860, she became one of nine vice presidents elected at the National Dress Reform Association Convention.
With the Civil War’s start in 1861, Walker went to Washington, D.C., in the fall of that year in hopes of joining the Union Army as a medical officer. But a woman in trousers who could perform surgery and give medical examinations was unthinkable to those in command, and her enrollment was denied. So Walker volunteered with no compensation, serving under Dr. J.N. Green as an acting assistant surgeon. She performed many of his duties.
Walker was appointed assistant surgeon to the 52nd Ohio Infantry in 1863 and wore a modified version of an officer’s uniform. Here, her medical credentials were questioned. In April 1864, she was captured in uniform just south of the Georgia-Tennessee border, taken hostage and imprisoned at Castle Thunder near Richmond, Va., for four months. While there, her complaints of improper rations at the prison saw the addition of wheat bread and cabbage for the prisoners. In August 1864 she was released in a prisoner exchange.
It wouldn’t be until Oct. 5, 1964, that Walker would finally be commissioned as acting assistant surgeon, earning $100 a month — thus becoming the first female surgeon commissioned in the Army.
On Nov. 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson — with the recommendation of Maj. Gens. William T. Sherman and George H. Thomas — signed a bill that gave Walker the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service.
The citation recognized her “valuable service to the government,” devoting “herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health,” and enduring “hardships as a prisoner of war.” The citation also stated that “by reason of her not being a commissioned officer in the military service, a brevet or honorary rank cannot, under existing laws, be conferred upon her” so therefore, “in the opinion of the president an honorable recognition of her services and sufferings should be made.”
To this day, Walker remains the only woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service.
Walker’s service record reads:
Dr. Mary E. Walker (1832-1919) Rank and organization: Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian), U.S. Army. Places and dates: Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861; Patent Office Hospital, Washington, D.C., October 1861; following Battle of Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Tenn., September 1863; Prisoner of war, Richmond, Va., April 10, 1864-Aug. 12, 1864; Battle of Atlanta, September 1864; entered service at: Louisville, Ky.; born: 26 November 1832, Oswego County, N.Y.”
After Walker’s war service, she wrote and lectured on topics on women’s rights, dress reform and temperance issues. In 1866 she was elected as president of the National Dress Reform Association. She dressed as a man, including top hat, bow tie and men’s pants and shoes. In 1866, she helped Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone create the Women’s Suffrage Association in Ohio.
In 1917, the U.S. Congress changed the criteria for the Congressional Medal of Honor to include “actual combat with an enemy,” and Walker’s medal was revoked. That was the same year Walker’s health started to decline, after she fell on the Capitol steps in Washington, D.C.
Walker refused to return the medal, and wore it illegally every day until her death in 1919.
For years, friends and family lobbied to have Walker’s medal reinstated, and in 1977 President Jimmy Carter signed an order doing just that — citing Walker’s “distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex.”
In 1982, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 20-cent, first-class stamp in commemoration of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, as a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor and the second woman to graduate from a medical school in the United States.
Oddly enough, the full-color stamp portrays her wearing a fancy dress and curls. To the contrary, not only did she wear men’s clothes, but boasted she had been arrested for impersonating a man.
A description of Walker comes from the U.S. Postal Service: “Dr. Mary Walker was a humanitarian devoted to the care and treatment of the sick and wounded during the Civil War, often at the risk of her own life. A patriot dedicated and loyal to her country, she successfully fought against the sex discrimination of her time. Her personal achievements, as much as her vocal support, significantly contributed to the struggle for women’s rights.”
Judd Proctor and Brian Burns host “The Rainbow Minute,” a community radio show devoted to LGBT history and culture, founded in 2006. Proctor is a retired elementary school teacher and staunch gay activist. Burns is an author and horticulturalist. The couple resides in Richmond, Va.