Mary Edwards Walker was an unconventional woman.
She was a proponent of women's rights and dress reform-especially the wearing of "Bloomers" which didn't enjoy wide currency until the sport of bicycling became popular. In 1855 she became one of the earliest female physicians upon graduation from Syracuse Medical College. She married Albert Miller, a fellow student, in a ceremony that did not include a promise to obey; she did not take his name, and to her wedding wore trousers and a dress-coat. Neither the marriage nor their joint medical practice lasted long.
At the start of the Civil War, Dr. Mary E. Walker volunteered with the Union Army and adopted men's clothing. She was at first not allowed to work as a physician, but as a nurse and as a spy. She finally won a commission as an army surgeon in the Army of the Cumberland, 1862. While treating civilians, she was taken prisoner by the Confederates and was imprisoned for four months until she was released in a prisoner exchange.
Her official 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, Tennessee September 1863 Prisoner of War, Richmond, Virginia, April 10, 1864 - August 12, 1864 Battle of Atlanta, September 1864. Entered service at: Louisville, Kentucky Born: 26 November 1832, Oswego County, N.Y.
In 1866, the London Anglo-American Times wrote this of her:
"Her strange adventures, thrilling experiences, important services and marvelous achievements exceed anything that modern romance or fiction has produced… She has been one of the greatest benefactors of her sex and of the human race."
After the Civil War, she worked primarily as a writer and lecturer, usually appearing dressed in a man's suit and top hat.
Dr. Mary E. Walker was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for her Civil War service, in an order signed by President Andrew Johnson on November 11, 1865. When, in 1917, the government revoked 900 such medals, and asked for Walker's medal back, she refused to return it and wore it until her death two years later. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter restored her medal posthumously, making her the first woman to hold a Congressional Medal of Honor.
Dr. Mary Walker was born in Oswego, New York. Her mother was Vesta Whitcom and her father was Alvah Walker, both originally from Massachusetts and descended from early Plymouth settlers who had first moved to Syracuse -- in a covered wagon -- and then to Oswego. Mary was the fifth of five daughters at her birth. and another sister and a brother would be born after her. Alvah Walker was trained as a carpenter who, in Oswego, was settling into a farmer's life. Oswego was a place where many became abolitionists -- including neighbor Gerrit Smith -- and supporters of women's rights. The women's rights convention of 1848 was held in upstate New York. The Walkers supported the growing abolitionism, and also such movements as health reform and temperance.
The agnostic speaker Robert Ingersoll was Vesta's cousin. Mary and her siblings were raised religiously, though rejecting the evangelism of the time and not associating with any sect.
Everyone in the family worked hard on the farm, and were surrounded by many books which the children were encouraged to read. The Walker family helped to found a school on their property, and Mary's older sisters were teachers at the school.
Young Mary became involved with the growing women's rights movement. She may also have first met Frederick Douglass when he spoke in her home town. She also developed, from reading medical books which she read in her home, the idea that she could be a physician.
She studied for a year at Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York, a school which included courses in the sciences and health. She moved to Minetto, New York, to take a position as a teacher, saving to enroll in medical school.
Her family had also been involved in dress reform as one aspect of women's rights, avoiding the tight clothing for women that restricted movement, and instead advocating for more loose clothing. As a teacher, she modified her own clothing to be looser in the waste, shorter in the skirt, and with pants underneath.
In 1853 she enrolled in Syracuse Medical College, six years after Elizabeth Blackwell's medical education. This school was part of a movement towards eclectic medicine, another part of the health reform movement and conceived of as a more democratic approach to medicine than the traditional allopathic medical training. Her education included traditional lectures and also interning with an experienced and licensed physician. She graduated as a Doctor of Medicine in 1855, qualified as both a medical doctor and as a surgeon.
Marriage and Early Career
She married a fellow student, Albert Miller, in 1955, after knowing him from their studies. The abolitionist and Unitarian Rev. Samuel J. May performed the marriage, which excluded the word "obey." The marriage was announced not only in local papers, but in The Lily, the dress reform periodical of Amelia Bloomer.
Mary Walker and Albert Mmiller opened a medical practice together. By the late 1850s she became active in the women's rights movement, focusing on dress reform. Some key suffrage supporters including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone adopted the new style including shorter skirts with pants worn underneath. But the attacks and ridicule about clothing from the press and public began to, in the opinion of some suffrage activists, distract from women's rights. Many went back to traditional dress, but Mary Walker continued to advocate for more comfortable, safer clothing.
Out of her activism, Mary Walker added first writing and then lecturing to her professional life. She wrote and spoke about "delicate" matters including abortion and pregnancy outside of marriage. She even wrote an article on women soldiers.
Fighting for a Divorce
In 1859, Mary Walker discovered that her husband was involved in an extramarital affair. She asked for a divorce, he suggested that instead, she also find affairs outside their marriage. She pursued a divorce, which also meant that she worked to establish a medical career without him, despite the significant social stigma of divorce even among those women working for women's rights. Divorce laws of the time made a divorce difficult without the consent of both parties. Adultery was grounds for a divorce, and Mary Walker had amassed evidence of multiple affairs including one that resulted in a child, and another where her husband had seduced a woman patient. When she still could not get a divorce in New York after nine years, and knowing that even after the granting of a divorce there was a five year waiting period until it became final, she left her medical, writing, and lecture careers in New York and moved to Iowa, where divorce was not so difficult.
In Iowa, she was at first unable to convince people that she was, at the young age of 27, qualified as a physician or teacher. After enrolling in school to study German, she discovered they did not have a German teacher. She participated in a debate, and was expelled for participating. She discovered that New York state would not accept an out of state divorce, so she returned to that state.
When Mary Walker returned to New York in 1859, war was on the horizon. When the war broke out, she decided to go to war, but not as a nurse, which was the job the military was recruiting for, but as a physician.
Known for: among the earliest woman physicians; first woman to win the Medal of Honor; Civil War service including commission as an army surgeon; dressing in men's clothing
Dates: November 26, 1832 - February 21, 1919
- Harris, Sharon M. Dr. Mary Walker, An American Radical, 1832 - 1919 . 2009.
- Synder, Charles McCool. Dr. Mary Walker: The Little Lady in Pants. 1974.
More About Mary Walker:
- Profession: Physician
- Also known as: Dr. Mary Walker, Dr. Mary E. Walker, Mary E. Walker, Mary Edwards Walker
- Organizational Affiliations: Union Army
- Places: New York, United States
- Period: 19th century