Mary Edwards Walker was for in Oswego, New York, on November 26, 1832. She was the daughter of Alvah and Vesta Walker and the youngest of seven children. She had five sisters and one brother. Alvah, her father, was a country doctor and a participant in many of the movements that thrived in upstate New York at the time. Her parents raised both their son and daughters in a shockingly progressive way that was revolutionary at the time. Perhaps it nontraditional parenting style that resulted in Mary’s spirit of independence and her keen sense of justice or maybe it was just Mary. She exhibited both continuously, throughout her life.
The family was Christian but they were also “free thinkers” and Alvah and Vesta raised their children to question, always question, just about everything. Her parents demonstrated non traditional gender roles sharing work around the home and farm equally. Mary worked on the farm as a child and never wore traditional clothes while doing that work because they were way too restrictive. Probably a lesson she had learned from her mother sho shunned the tight lacing and corsets of the time. It was an abolitionist family and her birthplace is marked with a historical marker on Bunker Hill Road.
Mary’s parents had started a local school because they were determined that all of their children, male or female, were to have access to an equal education. The first free schoolhouse in Oswego was founded by them in the late 1830’s. There were no options for them after primary school but to attend Falley seminary in Fulton New York. Falley was not really an institution of higher learning but it was a place that emphasized modern social reform in education, hygiene and gender roles. Mary and two of her sisters attended and these ideologies were cemented in their lives further inspiring young Mary to defy just about all traditional feminine standards, saying they were simply unjust!
She immersed herself in her father’s medical texts constantly and attributed her interest and life in medicine on the exposure to these texts. She taught school for a while in Minetto, New York and saved every penny she made. With her savings she was able to pay her way through Syracuse Medical College graduating with high honors as a medical doctor in 1855. She was the only woman in her class.
When she was 23, she married fellow medical school student, Albert Miller. Her wedding attire consisted of a short skirt with trousers underneath. She wrote her own vows and did not include the word “obey.” She was obstinate in her nonconformity and refused to take Miller as her last name, retaining her own. They practiced for a while together in Rome, New York but the practice waned probably due to the fact that female physicians were really still not trusted or respected. She and Albert divorced due to his infidelity. She attended Bowen Collegiate Institute for a short period (later named Lenox College) in Hopkinton, Iowa. She was suspended from this school in 1860 because she refused to resign from the debate society which until she appeared, had been all male. The college wanted it to stay that way.
Walker was rather infamous for contesting many things but female wardrobe was a the top of the list. In 1871, she wrote, "The greatest sorrows from which women suffer to-day are those physical, moral, and mental ones, that are caused by their unhygienic manner of dressing!” She strongly opposed women's long skirts with numerous petticoats, not only for their discomfort and their inhibition to the wearer's mobility but for their collection and spread of dust and dirt. As a young woman, she began experimenting with various skirt-lengths and layers, all with men's trousers underneath. By 1861, her typical ensemble included trousers with suspenders under a knee-length dress with a tight waist and full skirt.
Walker’s choice of wardrobe was readily accepted in her family but those choices often met with attach and criticism in the outside world. She was assaulted by neighbors, chased by others, attacked with eggs and other projectiles. Her choices were often criticized by colleagues and her patients frequently stared open mouthed and teased her. Nevertheless, she persisted in her mission to be comfortable and reform the dress code set for women.
She firmly believed that women’s clothing should protect the person but allow freedom of motion and circulation not making her a slave to it. This tongue in cheek comment may have been a reference to the zeal that she also had for abolition. She wrote vastly about the issue of women’s wardrobes thus spreading ideas that did make her popular with feminists and female physicians, who were few at that time.
When the Civil War began in 1861, she volunteered as a surgeon because there was a great need for surgeons in the Army. Despite the fact that she had run a successful private practice for years now, she was rejected immediately because she was a woman. The Army offered her a place as a nurse. She declined and chose instead to volunteer as a surgeon for the Union Army as a civilian. The U.S. Army didn’t know how to deal with a woman surgeon so at first she practiced only as a nurse in various places where she was needed. As battles heated up and casualties became overwhelming, she worked as an unpaid field surgeon near the front lines in places like the Battle of Fredericksburg and in Chattanooga after the Battle of Chickamauga. She was the first female surgeon in the Army and insisted on wearing men’s clothing reasoning that it was easier due to the high demands of her work.
In 1862, Mary wrote to the War Department requesting to be deployed as a spy. Her request was denied. Later she was employed as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian” by the U.S. Army of Cumberland. During this service she often crossed battle lines in order to treat civilians.
In the spring of 1864, she was captured by confederate troops, arrested as a spy, immediately after she finished assisting a confederate doctor in performing an amputation. She was shackled and sent to a holding facility in Richmond, Virginia, where she remained for four months until she was released as part of a prisoner exchange. Of course, when imprisoned, she refused to wear clothes provided for her that were more “ladylike.” Some sources suggest she allowed herself to be captured in order to spy for the Union army, but there is little evidence to support this claim. She was released back to the 52nd Ohio as a contract surgeon, but spent the rest of the war practicing at a Louisville female prison and an orphan's asylum in Tennessee. She was paid $766.16 for her wartime service. Afterward, she got a monthly pension of $8.50, later raised to $20, but still less than some widows' pensions.
In November 1865, having left government service for good, Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson, even though she was a civilian who had never been a commissioned officer in military service.
In addition to her work with the army, she began to advocate for women’s rights. In New Orleans in 1870 she was mocked and arrested because she was dressed like a man. The arresting officer, gave her arm a hurtful twist and asked if she had ever had sex with a man. Some things never change!In her defense, she argued that she was given special permission by the government to dress that way. She was eventually released when someone in the court recognized who she was.
After the war, Mary Edwards Walker became a writer and lecturer, touring here and abroad on women's rights, dress reform, health and temperance issues. Tobacco, she said, resulted in paralysis and insanity. Women's clothing, she said, was immodest and inconvenient. She was elected president of the National Dress Reform Association in 1866. Walker prided herself by being arrested numerous times for wearing full male dress, including wing collar, bow tie, and top hat. She was also something of an inventor, coming up with the idea of using a return postcard for registered mail. She wrote extensively, including a combination biography and commentary.
She tried to register to vote in 1871, but she was denied. Walker then participated in politics by campaigning for the U.S. Senate in 1881 and running as a Democratic candidate for Congress in 1890. Although she lost both times, she testified in front of the US House of Representatives in support of women's suffrage
One of the nation's 1.8 million women veterans, and the nearly 3,500 medal recipients, Mary Edwards Walker was the only one to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor, for her service during the Civil War. In 1916, that Medal of Honor was taken away from Walker and 910 others after the government reviewed their eligibility. Although she was given the award by the President, it was said that she did not meet the requirements to qualify for the award. However, this did not stop Walker from wearing her award until her death in 1919, at the age of eighty six. Decades later, President Jimmy Carter legally restored the Medal of Honor to Walker’s name.
Despite the controversy surrounding her career and her politics, Dr. Mary Walker was proud of her accomplishments as a physician and an advocate for women's rights. As she concluded in 1897, "I am the original new woman...Why, before Lucy Stone, Mrs. Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were—before they were, I am. In the early '40's, when they began their work in dress reform, I was already wearing pants...I have made it possible for the bicycle girl to wear the abbreviated skirt, and I have prepared the way for the girl in knickerbockers.”
A 20¢ stamp honoring Dr. Mary Walker was issued in Oswego, NY on June 10, 1982. The stamp commemorates the first woman to have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and the second woman to graduate from a medical school in the United States.