In the early 19th century in America, women had different life experiences depending on what groups they were part of. A dominant ideology at the beginning of the 1800s was called Republican Motherhood: middle- and upper-class white women were expected to educate the young to be good citizens of the new country.
The other dominant ideology on gender roles at the time was separate spheres: Women were to rule the domestic sphere, while men operated in the public sphere, such as the matter of the states and businesses.
However, one woman from New York was ahead of her time - Mary Edwards Walker. She defied many gender classifications dictated by society, wore trousers, participated in the war, and fought for women's rights.
She was also the first and only woman who received the highest award in the country - the Medal of Honor.
Raised as a freethinker
Mary was born in the Town of Oswego, New York, on November 26, 1832. She was the daughter of Alvah and Vesta Walker. She was the youngest of seven children. Her parents raised them in a progressive manner that was considered revolutionary for that time.
Her parents' non-traditional nurturing honed Mary's spirit of independence and a sense of justice that she actively demonstrated throughout her life. Even though they were devoted Christians, the Walkers were "free thinkers" who raised their children to question the regulations and restrictions of various denominations.
The Walker parents also demonstrated non-traditional gender roles to their children regarding sharing work around the farm. Mary's mother often takes in heavy labor, while her father took part in general household chores. Growing up in such an environment, Mary also adapts to this culture.
She worked on her family farm as a child. She did not wear women's clothing during farm labor because she considered it too restricting. Her mother reinforced her views that corsets and tight lacings were unhealthy.
Mary was well-educated as her parents wanted equal opportunity for all their children regardless of gender. Therefore, the Walkers founded the first free schoolhouse in Oswego in the late 1830s. It was also the school where Mary attended during her elementary years.
After finishing primary school, Mary and two of her older sisters attended Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York. Falley was not only an institution of higher learning but a place that emphasized modern social reform in gender roles, education, and hygiene.
Its ideologies and practices further cemented Mary's determination to defy traditional feminine standards on a principle of injustice. In her free time, Mary would pore over her father's medical texts on anatomy and physiology. Her interest in medicine is attributable to her exposure to medical literature at an early age.
As a young woman, she taught at a school in Minetto, New York, eventually earning enough money to pay her way through Syracuse Medical College, where she graduated with honors as a medical doctor in 1855, the only woman in her class.
Wearing pants in the 1800s
She married a fellow medical school student, Albert Miller, on November 16, 1855, shortly before she turned 23. Mary wore a short skirt with trousers underneath, refused to include "obey" in her vows, and retained her last name, all characteristic of her obstinate nonconformity.
They set up a joint practice in Rome, New York. The practice did not flourish, as female physicians were generally not trusted or respected at that time. They later divorced on account of Miller's infidelity.
Inspired by her parents' different approach to wardrobe for health purposes, Mary was infamous for contesting traditional female garments. She strongly opposed women's long skirts with numerous petticoats, not only for their discomfort and their inhibition of the wearer's mobility but also for their collection and spread of dust and dirt.
She began experimenting with various skirt-lengths and layers as a young woman, 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.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Mary wanted to join the Union’s efforts. She went to Washington but was not allowed to serve as a medical officer because she was a woman. She decided to still serve as an unpaid volunteer surgeon at the U.S. Patent Office Hospital in Washington.
At the time, the army had no female surgeons, so Mary was only allowed to practice as a nurse. After this, she organized the Women's Relief Organization that helped families of the wounded who came to visit their loved ones at the hospital.
In 1862, Mary moved to Virginia and started treating wounded soldiers near the front lines. She also wrote to the War Department in September of that year requesting to become a spy, but she was rejected. However, in 1863 her request to practice as a surgeon was finally accepted. She became the first female U.S. Army surgeon as a "Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)" in Ohio.
Mary was later appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. During her service, she frequently crossed battle lines and treated civilians.
On April 10, 1864, she was captured by Confederate troops, and arrested as a spy, just after she finished helping a Confederate doctor perform an amputation. She was sent to Castle Thunder in Richmond, Virginia, and remained there until August 12, 1864, when she was released as part of a prisoner exchange. While she was imprisoned, she refused to wear the clothes provided to her. Mary was exchanged for a Confederate surgeon from Tennessee on August 12, 1864.
She went on to serve as supervisor of a female prison in Louisville, Kentucky, and as the head of an orphanage in Tennesse.
Medal of Honor
After the war, she was approved for the Medal of Honor, for her efforts to treat the wounded during the Civil War. Notably, the award was not expressly given for gallantry in action at that time, and in fact, was the only military decoration during the Civil War.
Mary is the only woman to receive the medal and one of only eight civilians to receive it. In her citation it said:
"Whereas it appears from official reports that Dr. Mary E. Walker, a graduate of medicine, "has rendered valuable service to the Government, and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways," and that she was assigned to duty and served as an assistant surgeon in charge of female prisoners at Louisville, Kentucky, upon the recommendation of Major-Generals Sherman and Thomas, and faithfully served as contract surgeon in the service of the United States, and has devoted 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 has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war four months in a Southern prison while acting as contract surgeon; and Whereas 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; and Whereas in the opinion of the President an honorable recognition of her services and sufferings should be made."
In addition to her work with the Army, Mary began to advocate for women’s rights. She famously wore pants and advocated for “dress reform.”
She also fought for suffrage and tried to register to vote in 1871, but she was denied. Mary 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 U.S. House of Representatives in support of women's suffrage.
In 1916, the Medal of Honor was taken away from her (along with over 900 other, male MOH recipients), after the government reviewed their eligibility. Although she was given the award by the President, she did not meet the requirements to qualify for the award.
However, this did not stop Mary from wearing her award until her death in 1919. At the age of eighty-six, Mary died of illness.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter legally restored the Medal of Honor to Mary Edwards Walker’s name.