Out of the nearly 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients, only one was a woman. Dr. Mary Walker was an American abolitionist, prohibitionist, prisoner of war, and surgeon.
Dr. Mary Walker was born in the town of Oswego, New York, on the 26th of November, 1832. Mary’s parents encouraged her to pursue an education and in 1855, she graduated as a medical doctor from Syracuse Medical College. In fact, Mary was the first woman to ever graduate from the college and the second woman to graduate from medical school in the United States. Then when the Civil War broke out, she wanted to join the army as a surgeon. However, since she was a woman, her enlistment was denied.
Instead, Mary volunteered for the Union Army, working for free at the temporary hospital set up in Washington D.C. In September of 1863, Mary’s medical credentials were accepted and she moved to Tennessee where she became a War Department surgeon. At the time, there were very few women doctors and the idea of one working in the military was almost beyond a man’s imagination. Then the following year, Mary was captured and held as a prisoner of war for around four months. She had crossed enemy lines to help heal the wounded when she was captured. She was sent as a prisoner of war to Richmond, Virginia, but was finally released four months later in return for a Confederate Army doctor.1
In addition to her efforts during the war, Mary was also a staunch advocate for women’s rights. She spoke publicly in favour of equal pay as well as professional opportunities for women. At the time, women weren’t allowed to wear clothing that was supposedly designed for men. Mary started to wear whatever clothing she wanted and was arrested for “impersonating” a man. During her arrest, an officer twisted her arm and asked her if she had ever had sex with a man. Thankfully the charges were dismissed by the judge who recognised her immediately.
Mary opposed to women being expected to wear long skirts and petticoats, arguing that they spread dirt and dust. In 1871, he wrote: “The greatest sorrows from which women suffer to-day are those physical, moral, and mental ones, that are caused by their unhygienic manner of dressing!”2 She despised the corset as well, referring to it as a “coffin.” Instead, she often wore dark trousers, a black tie and tail. Sometimes she wore a dress over the top. Mary wasn’t well liked by leading suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott who claimed she was giving the “wrong image” for her clothing style.
Then in 1865, Mary was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson. The Medal of Honor is the highest honor bestowed on military members for bravery and heroism in battle. At the time, “whole regiments” would be given the award merely for serving in battle but Mary was awarded the medal for her efforts to treat the wounded during the Civil War.3However, in 1917, Mary’s medal was rescinded. Mary refused to give up her Medal of Honor and continued to wear it until she died two years later. Her death came just the year before women were given the right to vote. Sixty years later, Mary’s Medal of Honor was restored.
- The Fort Leavenworth Lamp, 9 March, 2017 – “Meet Dr. Mary Walker”
- Yankee Women: Gender battles in the Civil War by Elizabeth Leonard
- The Post Standard, 17 December, 1998 – “Recalling a Woman /scorned”