Dr. Mary Edwards Walker
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker wears her Medal of Honor pinned to her lapel.
C.M. Bell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In 1916, Congress formed the Board of Medals and tasked them with reviewing—and then purging—the existing list of 2,625 Medal of Honor recipients. The medal came with a pension and the government was paying significant sums to veterans of the Civil War, many to soldiers who did little more than train for battles they never fought. “[T]he board determined that Army medals ... awarded ‘for any cause other than distinguished conduct by an officer or enlisted man in action involving actual conflict with an enemy’” should be “‘stricken permanently from the official medal of honor list,’” wrote Dwight S. Mears in The Medal of Honor: The Evolution of America’s Highest Military Decoration.
This 1916 act stripped over 900 individuals of their medals, including the first woman to ever receive one.
Mary Edwards Walker was born on Nov. 26, 1832, in the Town of Oswego, New York. She and her family, parents Alvah and Vesta Whitcomb Walker and seven siblings (all older than Mary), lived on a farm. Alvah and Vesta were markedly progressive for their time. As abolitionists, they opposed slavery; their farmhouse was an occasional stop on the Underground Railroad, allowing escaped enslaved people a safe place to rest.
The couple also believed in equal rights for the sexes. Her father Alvah often did household chores, while mother Vesta donned trousers to help with the manual labor in the field. Throughout her life, Mary would share her parents’ opinion that tight corsets and long dresses were unhealthy—the corsets impeded breathing, they insisted, and trailing skirts gathered dirt.
Alvah and Vesta were just as committed to equal education, and they founded Oswego’s first free school house on their farm land. This was Mary’s first school, which she attended with her sisters and brother. After, she attended Fulton, New York’s stately Falley Seminary, just 10 miles away.
The school’s hygiene and generally progressive attitudes passed muster with Mary’s parents, but she still found herself a radical among her peers. She penned an essay for the school newspaper in support of abolition, only to have it rejected by the editor. Mary was shocked by her classmate’s decision. “My father had been a very prominent abolitionist and I was very much opposed to human slavery,” she said. “It struck me as very peculiar that a girl whose father had been a foreign missionary could look with favor on American slavery. That was one of the things which first opened my eyes on this question. I took a stand then and never faltered in my love for American freedom.”
After graduation, Mary worked as a teacher in nearby Minetto, NY, and she saved all her earnings for medical school. Her father had been a country doctor and Mary spent her adolescence pouring over his medical textbooks and anatomy guides. In her early adulthood, she frequently demonstrated the “prurient immodesty” of asking doctors and surgeons for permission to observe their procedures.
She also experienced harassment for choosing to wear pants instead of dresses. Into her old age she would share the story of a farmer who, so furious to see her walking past his field in trousers, gathered a group of boys to chase her and pelt her with eggs. Mary managed to outrun them.
She graduated as the sole woman in the 1855 class of the Syracuse University College of Medicine (now known as the State University of New York), joining the small number of women physicians in the nation. “The handful of institutions that admitted women to medical study in the early 1850s typically had separate curricula or only allowed women to attend selected lectures, often excluding anatomy because it was considered indecent for a woman to view a naked body and an embarrassment for male students to have females in attendance,” noted Sharon M. Harris in Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical. Mary’s schooling spanned three 13-week terms, each costing $55, along with room and board of $1.50 per week.
It was at her graduation ceremony that she first met Arthur E. Miller. They stayed in contact after leaving college and then married on Nov. 16, 1855, Mary’s 23rd birthday. The couple omitted the word “obey” from their vows. “How barbarous the very idea of one equal promising to be a slave to another, instead of both entering life’s great drama as intelligent, equal partners!” Mary wrote.
Mary also kept her last name. She and Arthur settled in Rome, NY, and opened a joint practice under a sign which read, “Miller and Walker, Physicians.” They had separate exam rooms and separate clientele. Mary often drove a horse and carriage to make house calls on her patients, primarily women and children.
Despite daily harassment, Mary’s dedication to dress reform was steadfast. When she’d been chased by the farmer, her style was a shorter dress over long trousers. Over the years, the skirt portion became shorter or smaller until she abandoned it altogether for pants more commonly worn by men.
Trouser-wearing women of the day were often called “Bloomers,” named after Amelia Jenks Bloomer. Amelia, the first woman to own and operate a newspaper for women—and a friend of Mary’s—frequently wore “Turkish-style pantaloons.” Bloomers were often criticized, even by other women’s rights activists who felt the public protest and ridicule of the clothing was a distraction from the movement’s other goals. Wearing trousers attracted too much attention to the body of a woman, they argued, rather than her political state.
The Supreme Court of the State of New York granted Mary a divorce from Arthur in 1861, citing Arthur’s infidelity, but it was 1866 before the legal proceedings were settled entirely. Divorce was still exceptionally rare. It was only 20 years prior that married women in New York were granted any legal right to their own property in a marriage, or in leaving it.
On April 12, 1861, successionist Confederate soldiers opened fire on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the opening volley of the United States Civil War. Fierce patriot and abolitionist Mary immediately reported to Washington, D.C. to join the fight. She was summarily rejected from a paid medical position because she was a woman, so she served as an unpaid volunteer in the temporary hospital set up in the Patent Office. As the Union Army didn’t allow for female doctors, she could only practice as a nurse.
Working alongside male doctors, she began to question their reliance on amputation. She often stayed silent, very aware her presence was precarious, but she began to examine wounded soldiers herself. “In almost every instance, I saw amputation was not only unnecessary, but to
me it seemed wickedly cruel,” she said.
She served throughout the duration of the war. She modified her Union uniform to be her more comfortable style of trousers with a short dress, and carried with her a letter from Dr. J.M. Mackenzie, verifying her training and education. “To whom it may concern,” he wrote, “I am happy to bear testimony to the moral worth of Miss Walker who is a graduate of Syracuse Medical College and is well versed in the science of medicine and whose unbounded patriotism and love of humanity prompts her to seek a position where she can be useful…” This assertion of her “moral worth” was necessary as many of the generals and officers mistrusted this woman who tromped through mud to help fallen soldiers. More than one suspected her of being a spy.
Mary continually sought an official and paid position with the Union Army. She wrote to Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, in November 1863, requesting the appointment of “first Assistant Surgeon.” Upon rejection, Mary turned her petition to President Lincoln. She insisted she was being denied based “solely on the ground of sex” and expressed desire “for a surgeon’s commission with orders to go whenever and wherever there is a battle.” The president denied her request, replying that he could not meddle in the Army’s Medical Department.
Finally, over two years into the war, she was granted the title of “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian).” This secured for her a lieutenant’s salary of $80 a month. She was sent to Chattanooga, Tenn., to serve the 52nd Ohio Regiment. Cate Lineberry wrote for The New York Times, “The previous assistant surgeon had recently died, and the men camped in winter quarters were in dire need of help. The civilian population also needed medical assistance, and Walker was soon crossing enemy lines, traveling throughout the dangerous countryside to treat wary patients who weren’t sure what to make of a female doctor.”
Here, the suspicion that Mary was a spy became a reality: Her status as a civilian and her unusual presence as a woman allowed her greater unfettered movement. While on her missions to treat her patients, she also gathered information about the movement and locations of Confederate troops. Union generals noted that Mary "...passed frequently beyond our lines far within those of the enemy and, at one time, gained information that led Gen. Sherman to modify his strategic operations as to save himself from a serious reverse and obtain success where defeat before seemed to be inevitable."
In April 1864, the 52nd rode out. Mary stayed back to care for injured civilians before following alone on horseback. She was then apprehended by the Confederates and taken prisoner to Castle Thunder near Richmond, Va. This tobacco-warehouse-turned-prison was known for the brutality of its guards.
Of Mary, a Confederate captain wrote, “[The crowd was] both amused and disgusted... at the sight of a thing that nothing but the debased and depraved Yankee nation could produce.... [She] was dressed in the full uniform of a Federal surgeon...not good-looking and of course had tongue enough for a regiment of men.”
After four months, Mary was released as part of a “man for man” swap to return 14 imprisoned physicians—both Union and Confederate—to their armies. Her health would never fully recover from her time at Castle Thunder, but she quickly returned to work. She requested and received a station caring for the female prisoners of war imprisoned in Louisville, Ky. With this post, she became the U.S. Army’s first female surgeon and earned $100 a month. She found this job frustrating, however, as both patients and other doctors questioned her care, so after only a few months, she transferred to the Clarksville, Tenn. Refugee Home to treat wounded soldiers once more.
On April 8, 1865, the Confederate army surrendered at the Appomattox Courthouse, finally ending the U.S. Civil War. Mary returned to New York State. Later that same year, Mary received the Medal of Honor from President Andrew Johnson. The president said Mary “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.”
After the war, at only age 33, Mary’s health was greatly diminished and her eyesight failing, the lingering impact of her time at Castle Thunder. Her spirit, however, was unfazed. She took up work as an activist and writer. In 1868, she sued the Washington Election Board, demanding the right to vote as a citizen of the United States. In 1871, she published Hit: Essays on Women’s Rights, and in 1878, Unmasked, or the Science of Immorality: To Gentlemen by a Women Physician and Surgeon. Though limited by a Victorian perspective on sex and sexuality, these books nevertheless explored radical feminist concepts such as women keeping their maiden names, compensation for domestic work, and equity in divorce.
According to Dr. Mary Edwards Walker: Civil War Surgeon & Medal of Honor Recipient by Bonnie Zucker Goldsmith, Mary’s father died in 1880, leaving the family’s Oswego farm to Mary. The farm itself was no longer profitable and such a grounded lifestyle no longer worked for the light-footed Mary, who traveled frequently to speak at feminist and suffrage events. Older sister Aurora, herself a wealthy widow, moved back to the farm to live with Mary. Aurora paid bills and ran the farm during Mary’s absences. After Aurora’s death, Mary’s other sisters and their husbands helped pay for Mary’s necessities.
Bonnie wrote, “As she grew older, few people remembered Walker’s war service or her leadership in the women’s rights movement. People in Oswego gradually saw her as an odd, rather quarrelsome old woman in men’s clothing. Neighbors recalled the large ‘No Smoking’ sign in her house.”
The Nov. 8, 1880 issue of the Oswego Palladium recounted the story of “Dr. Mary Walker’s Vote.” The short blurb described Mary “at the polls of the first election district in Oswego Town,” stepping up to offer her vote. “The inspectors said that she was not a legally qualified voter and they could not receive the ballot. She insisted on her right to vote.”
The paragraphs puzzled over her clothing, of course. “Some pert young fellow in the crowd said if she was going to vote, they might as well dress up all their women folks in men’s clothes and bring them down and vote them.”
“‘I don’t wear men’s clothes,’ retorted Dr. Walker, sharply. ‘I wear my own clothes.’”
She was frequently arrested for “impersonating a man.” At one such hearing, she asserted her right “to dress as I please in free America on whose tented fields I have served for four years in the cause of human freedom.” She ran for Congress in 1890 and for Senate 1892. Both campaigns were, of course, unsuccessful. Of her activism, Mary said,
“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.”
In Mary Edwards Walker and the Queer Suffragists Who Changed History, Sarah Durn highlighted the friction between Mary’s style and the leading suffragists of the era. At a National Woman Suffrage Association event in January 1873, Susan B. Anthony stood at the podium.
“She spoke of unity, forming a national women’s newspaper, and the vote. But few people were paying attention to Anthony. Even suffragist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton was distracted, verging on annoyed. Because there, just to the side of the podium, an imposing woman stood in pants and a slimming man’s coat, waiting. Her name was Mary Edwards Walker. ... As more and more of the crowd noticed her, they began to murmur and whisper, ‘she’s here!’ But still Walker stood, patiently waiting for Anthony to yield the floor. When Anthony finally did so, Walker launched into a scathing critique of the NWSA, and Stanton and Anthony with it. They had abandoned the cause of dress reform, she said, giving up the fight for women to renounce health-damaging corsets. Anthony and Stanton lacked courage, she said.
Mary was once again too radical for her peers. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others in the movement called Mary a “she-man,” a “ghoul,” and prohibited from later conventions. “They deliberately sought to conceal the queerness of the suffrage movement,” noted Wendy Rouse, author of Public Faces, Secret Lives: A Queer History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
In a Denver Post article titled, “A history lesson for Trump: Transgender soldiers served in the Civil War,” history professor Elizabeth Leonard said, “They wouldn’t know what in the world you meant by the world transgender, but there have been women serving in men’s dress in armies since the beginning of wars. ... It’s a story that we keep losing sight of.”
It can’t be known how Mary would have identified. Perhaps she might have been a trans man, had the term been available to her. Perhaps she might have been non-binary, genderfluid, or genderqueer, three more modern terms. Just as likely, however, she might have identified precisely how she was perceived, a cis woman dressing as she pleased. This highlights the absurdity, cruelty, and uselessness of laws attempting to outlaw trans or queer presentation: Transness and queerness simply do not look the way bigots presume. When queer and trans people are not safe from oppressive actions of the State, no one is safe.
In 1916, the Board of Medals stripped Mary of her Medal of Honor. She was instructed to surrender the medal, and by this order, “It shall be a misdemeanor for him to wear or publicly display said medal.” Mary ignored the ruling and wore her medal on her suit jacket until her death in Oswego Town on Feb. 21, 1919. She was buried in her black suit and tie.
In the 1970s, one of Mary’s descendants, Anne Walker, began a campaign to have her “distant aunt’s” medal restored. She made her plea to Presidents Nixon and Ford without any progress. Finally, as a June 4, 1977 New York Times article reported, “The resolution to restore the medal to Dr. Walker was introduced by Senator Edward W. Brooke, Republican of Massachusetts; and co‐sponsored by Senator Birch Bayh, an Indiana Democrat.”
At one 1977 hearing, Anne said, “Dr. Mary lost the medal simply because she was a hundred years ahead of her time and no one could stomach it.”
This time Anne’s efforts were rewarded: Mary’s medal was reinstated, leaving her—to this day—as the only woman in the United States to ever receive the Medal of Honor. In May 2012, the Town of Oswego unveiled a 900-pound bronze statue of Mary, standing in front of their town hall. Her Medal of Honor is now in the care of the Oswego Historical Society.
Mary Edwards Walker: Trailblazing feminist, surgeon, and war veteran by the American College of Surgeons
U.S. Government Accountability Office: A-10721, OCTOBER 15, 1925, 5 COMP. GEN. 258
The Medal of Honor: The Evolution of America’s Highest Military Decoration by Dwight S. Mears
Denver Post: A history lesson for Trump: Transgender soldiers served in the Civil War
AmericanCivilWar.com: Mary Edwards Walker 1832-1919 Congressional Medal of Honor Women in Military Service
Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical by Sharon M. Harris
Oswego Palladium: Nov. 8, 1880
Wikipedia: Mary Edwards Walker, Married Women's Property Acts in the United States, Castle Thunder (prison)
American Quarterly: Women's Clothes and Women's Rights
Health.mil: Paving the way for women in military medicine: Dr. Mary Edwards Walker
The New York Times: ‘I Wear My Own Clothes’, The Case of Dr. Walker, Only Woman To Win (and Lose) the Medal of Honor
NPR: She Was The Only Woman To Get The Medal Of Honor
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker: Civil War Surgeon & Medal of Honor Recipient by Bonnie Zucker Goldsmith
Atlas Obscura: Mary Edwards Walker and the Queer Suffragists Who Changed History