Mary Edwards Walker (1932-1919) was a dress-reform advocate and women's rights activist who served as a physician for the Union army during the Civil War. She challenged the social and cultural mores of the Victorian-era middle class to their limits and in the process "out-raged the sensibilities even of those who believed themselves tolerant and progressive," as Elizabeth D. Leonard points out in her book Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War. Yet Walker refused to back off from her lifelong insistence that women deserved nothing less than full equality with men.
Mary Edwards Walker was born on November 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York. She was the youngest daughter of Alvah Walker, a farmer, teacher, and self-taught physician, and Vesta Whitcomb Walker, who was also a teacher. Influenced by reform movements advocating abolition and sexual equality that swept through their part of the state during the 1820s and 1830s, the Walkers were very liberal thinkers by the standards of the time. They supported the idea of equal education for boys and girls and urged all of their children—five daughters and a son—to aspire to professional careers and personal independence.
As a child, Walker attended a local school run by her parents. Later, she continued her education at a seminary in Fulton, New York, but left there in 1852 to teach. Within two years, however, Walker had made up her mind to become a doctor instead, challenging society's belief that teaching was the only appropriate job for a woman. She enrolled in Syracuse Medical College (one of the few institutions that admitted women) in 1853 and graduated two years later, then practiced briefly in Columbus, Ohio, before relocating to Rome, New York. There she married a fellow physician named Albert Miller, and together they set up a medical practice. But most people were not ready to accept the idea of a woman doctor, and the practice soon failed. So, too, did the marriage; Walker and Miller separated in 1859 and divorced ten years later.
Several years earlier, Walker had enthusiastically embraced the tenets of the emerging reform movement in the United States. One of the first and most symbolic confrontations with the establishment was over women's clothing, which at the time featured tight corsets and awkward, ankle-length hoop skirts. Walker had always felt constrained by such attire and resented having to conform to what society deemed acceptable for a proper lady of the middle class. Thus, when the "bloomer dress" (invented by feminist and temperance activist Amelia Bloomer) became a political statement for radical women's rights advocates during the early 1850s, Walker was among the first to hem her skirt to just below the knee and replace her petticoats with a pair of long, full trousers that eventually came to be known as "bloomers."
Walker's activities on behalf of the dress-reform movement claimed ever-increasing amounts of her time during the rest of the decade. Beginning in January of 1857, she became a regular contributor to the group's newspaper, The Sibyl: A Review of the Tastes, Errors, and Fashions of Society, and later that same year, she attended a convention of dress-reform supporters held in Middletown, New York. By the end of 1857, she had made a name for herself as a writer and lecturer on the topic, and in 1860, she was elected to serve as one of the vice-presidents of the National Dress Reform Association. Meanwhile, she also began to turn her attention to other controversial issues in the women's rights movement, speaking out on subjects such as education, marriage, abortion, and the concept of equal pay for equal work.
Shortly after the Civil War broke out, Walker headed to Washington, D.C., where she tried to obtain an official commission to serve as a surgeon in the U.S. Army. When that was not forthcoming, she resolved to stay in the nation's capital and keep trying to persuade the War Department of her qualifications and willingness to serve. In the meantime, she volunteered her services to the Indiana Hospital, a makeshift facility that had been set up in a crowded section of the U.S. Patent Office to treat wounded and sick troops from Indiana.
However, Walker could not afford to work without pay indefinitely, so in early 1862, she left Washington to take some classes at New York Hygeio-Therapeutic College in the hope that the additional schooling would enhance her medical credentials. During the fall of that same year, she moved one step closer to her goal when she began working in an unofficial capacity as a contract surgeon at a couple of field hospitals in Virginia.
Once again, however, Walker soon found herself in need of a more dependable source of income, so she turned her attention to providing other kinds of assistance. One of her first projects was organizing the Women's Relief Association, a group that helped female visitors to Washington find a safe place to stay. Walker raised funds from local suffrage groups to rent a house and turned it into a women's lodging facility. In exchange for her services, she was allowed to live there free of charge. The enterprising Walker also started a service that helped women locate their loved ones in the various hospitals around Washington. But her attempts to set up and run a private medical practice during this same period were not as successful. Nevertheless, she enjoyed a reputation around the capital as someone who was genuinely interested in the welfare of soldiers and their families.
In late 1863, Walker headed to Tennessee on her own to provide medical aid to the survivors of the Battle of Chickamauga, one of the bloodiest confrontations of the war. Denied permission to work as a doctor, she served instead as a nurse until early 1864, when her persistence, combined with the army's desperate need for medical personnel, finally paid off. In late January, over the objections of male army doctors who were openly hostile to the idea of a woman practicing medicine, Walker received a long-awaited official appointment to the post of assistant army surgeon with the rank of lieutenant—a first for a woman.
By the time Walker obtained her commission, however, the troops of her regiment were in relatively good health. The same could not be said of the civilian population living in the communities around the camp. So Walker routinely crossed over into Confederate territory to deliver babies, treat various diseases, pull teeth, and perform all-around medical care for the war-weary local citizens. Many people believe that she may have also worked as a Union spy while behind enemy lines, although there is no solid evidence to back up that claim.
It was also around this time that Walker quit wearing women's clothes entirely and donned exclusively male attire, a practice she observed for the rest of her life. She made slight modifications to a typical officer's uniform and wore that instead to make it easier to move around and work under difficult conditions in field hospitals.
As far as Walker was concerned, such clothes were far more sanitary and practical than long skirts that dragged through the dirt and hindered natural body movements. Society did not see it quite that way, however, and she was arrested numerous times for disturbing the peace or "masquerading in men's clothes" as she strolled around in pants—a matter of great pride for the defiantly nonconformist physician.
On April 10, 1864, Walker was captured when she rode alone and unarmed deep into Confederate territory. She was held in Richmond, Virginia, until being released on August 12, at which time she made her way back to Washington. Accepting the somewhat ambiguous post of "surgeon-in-charge," she served first as head of a hospital for female Confederate prisoners in Louisville, Kentucky, where her constant run-ins with a resentful and uncooperative staff eventually led her to request a transfer in March 1865. Walker then spent the final weeks of the war running a home for orphans and refugees in Clarksville, Tennessee. She ended up leaving government service altogether in June of that year and several months later was awarded the Medal of Honor for "meritorious services," making her the only woman ever to receive the nation's highest military decoration for bravery in combat.
After the war, Walker tried to secure a commission as a peacetime army surgeon, setting her sights on a position as a medical inspector with the new Bureau of Refugees and Freedmen, but her request was turned down in late 1865. Following a brief stint as a journalist with a New York newspaper, she headed back to Washington. She then tried to open a medical practice but instead found herself becoming involved again in both the women's movement and the dress-reform movement. She also petitioned Congress to secure military pensions for Civil War nurses and proposed that they deserved the right to vote in light of their service to the country.
In 1867, following a lengthy visit to England, where she delivered speeches on temperance, dress reform, and her Civil War experiences, Walker stepped up her efforts on behalf of the crusade for women's suffrage. She lectured on the topic throughout New England, the Midwest, and the South and even testified before Congress. But she could not support the suffragists' call for the adoption of a special amendment to the Constitution granting the vote to women. Her position on the amendment certainly did not spring from any belief that women shouldn't have the right to vote; according to Walker's interpretation of the Constitution, women already had the right to vote. Therefore, she insisted, the suffragists' actions were pointless. By refusing to budge on this issue, Walker drove a wedge between herself and more mainstream activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who feared her extremism would paint the movement in a negative light and jeopardize its goals.
As the years went by, Walker grew increasingly eccentric in both dress and personal behavior, which only managed to alienate more moderate reformers and make her a target of abuse and mockery. Finding a steady means of support was also a nagging problem. Walker's efforts to obtain compensation for her wartime service were only partly successful; she drew a pension from the government that amounted to only half of what men of her rank received. Repeated attempts to establish her own medical practice failed because male doctors continually questioned her credentials and dismissed her as a quack. A brief stint working for the government in the Pension Office mail-room ended in 1883 when she was fired for insubordination. The next few years were especially difficult; beginning in 1887, Walker resorted to talking about her Civil War experiences in a traveling show known as a "museum" to earn a little extra money.
In 1890, Walker returned to the family homestead in New York. She remained there for the rest of her life and ran the farm. She also continued to work on behalf of women's rights and pursued a somewhat more militant agenda that included founding a commune for women in 1897 named "Adamless Eve." In addition, she ran a sanatorium near Oswego for tuberculosis patients.
During a visit to Washington in 1917, the same year her Medal of Honor was revoked for lack of proper War Department documentation (it was restored sixty years later by President Jimmy Carter), Walker fell on the Capitol steps and suffered injuries from which she never fully recovered. She died two years later at her home in Oswego at the age of 86, alone and virtually penniless, remembered more for her peculiarities than for her brave and honorable wartime service to her country.
Leonard, Elizabeth D., Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War, Norton, 1994.
Snyder, C.M., Dr. Mary Walker: The Little Lady in Pants, Vantage Press, 1962.
American Heritage, December 1977.
Smithsonian, March 1977.