In the 19th century, northern New York state was a progressive hotbed of anti-slavery opponents and advocates for women’s rights, encompassing everything from female education to dress reform to voting. Into such a community Mary E. Walker was born in Oswego in 1832. By the time she was 23, she had graduated from Syracuse Medical College, the first such institution in the country. Early on, she adopted the controversial “Bloomer” costume, wearing pants and shorter dresses. Attired in trousers and a frock coat, she married a fellow physician and kept her own name.
When the Civil War broke out, she tried to join the Union Army as a medic, an impossibility for a woman. So she volunteered, first as a nurse at the battle of First Manassas in Virginia, then as a surgeon in Tennessee as the battle of Chickamauga raged nearby. In 1864, in full military uniform, she was taken prisoner and imprisoned at Richmond, Va., but won release in time to help during the Battle of Atlanta. President Andrew Johnson awarded her a Congressional Medal of Honor in 1866.
After the war, she lectured on women’s rights, wearing full male evening dress–wing collar, bow tie and top hat–and that medal. Her costume got her arrested several times and by 1917, when the government decided to review Medal of Honor recipients and requested the return of hers because she had never officially been in the military, many believed it was really the clothing that did it. Walker refused and wore the medal until the day she died in 1919.
All but forgotten until the late 1960s, Walker was resurrected by a great grandniece, Ann Walker, who campaigned for restoration of the medal. Presumably riding a tide of feminist enthusiasm, Ann Walker gathered support and was successful. On June 10, 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed an order restoring the award. Five years later, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in Dr. Mary Walker’s honor. The stamp pictures an exceedingly feminine young woman in a lovely dress.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Voices From the Past: 1865 Medal of Honor citation:
National Museum of Civil War Medicine:
American Women’s History Research Guide: Civil War Period:
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