Mary Edwards Walker
The Walkers believed that their daughters deserved the same education as their son, and so their youngest, Mary Edwards Walker, was taught at a school that was founded by her parents in the 1830’s. She also was encouraged to wear men’s clothing on the family farm, as none of the Walkers believed women’s clothing was suitable for the work.
Fascinated by anatomy and medicine at an early age, Mary became a schoolteacher so that she could pay her way through Syracuse Medical College. She was the only woman in the class of 1855. But in that era, women were not trusted as doctors and she had trouble establishing a practice and finding work.
At the start of the Civil War, Walker volunteered for the Union Army. Despite her training and expertise as a surgeon, she was only given work as a nurse. She persisted, offering her skills to any who needed them, and in 1863 she became the first female surgeon in the U.S. Army. In the course of her Army career, she would cross battle lines and would also treat civilians and enemy soldiers. In 1864 she was captured by confederate troops, and was imprisoned for four months before being part of a prisoner exchange.
Walker continued to dress in unconventional ways, including wearing trousers with knee-length skirts over top. She stated that women’s clothing was “unhygienic” and that clothes should “protect the person and allow freedom of motion and circulation.” She was arrested for impersonating a man multiple times, but insisted that, “I don’t wear men’s clothes, I wear my own clothes.”
In 1865, Walker became the first woman to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor for her service during the Civil War. But in 1917, the Army changed the eligibility requirements for the medal and her name was deleted from the roll. She did not return her medal, and continued to wear it every day.
Walker passed away in 1919, and in 1977 President Jimmy Carter reinstated her medal posthumously. She remains the only woman to have been awarded the Medal of Honor.
Written by Mary Ratliff