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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mary Edwards Walker, M.D.

Doctor, Civil War Veteran, Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient

In my book, SALVATION BRIDE, I write about a heroine who's ahead of her times. Laura Ashton Slade is trained doctor in 1873 Texas. But a woman who truly was ahead of her times is Mary Edwards Walker, M.D.

Mary was the fifth daughter of Dr. Alvah and Vesta Walker, born on November 26, 1832 in Oswego, New York. Both her parents had unconventional views on female education....they believed women should receive a formal education. Mary started her employment as a school teacher, just as her sisters did before her. However, she soon broke tradition and attended the Syracuse Medical School, the country's first medical school and the only one to accept both men and women as equals. She graduated in 1855 at the age of 21 after three 13-week semester, which cost her $55 each.

She married fellow doctor Albert Miller not long after graduation and the two of them set up practice in Rome, NY. But both the practice and the marriage floundered (she accused her husband of infidelity). After only a few years, she separated from her husband, but it took a decade for them to divorce, due to the divorce laws at the time. Mary remained in Rome, practicing medicine, advocating social causes and writing the magazine SYBIL. She was friends with Amelia Bloomer, who the under garment is named after and one of her causes was dress reform for women.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, she attempted to join the Union Army. When denied a commission, she volunteered as a nurse instead. While working at a hospital in Washington, D.C., she discovered mothers and wives of soldiers living in parks and sleeping on benches. Spurred into action, she helped found the Women's Relief Association.

In September 1863, she was awarded a contract as an Active Assistant Surgeon for the Army of the Cumberland. When she was finally commissioned into the military in 1864, she became the first woman Doctor to service in Army Medical Corp. She modified her officer's uniform in response to the demands of traveling with the army and working in field hospitals near the front lines . She was later transferred to the 52nd Ohio Infantry.
During this time in the army she was also a spy for the Union.

In 1864 she was taken as a prisoner of war, the first American woman POW, and spent four months in a Richmond POW camp. She and two dozen other Union doctors were exchanged for seventeen Confederate surgeons.

She left the army in 1865 and was paid $8.50 a month in a pension. Even when it was raised to $20 a month, it was less than what a widow received as a pension.

On November 11, 1865, President Johnson signed a bill awarding Mary Edwards Walker with the Congressional Medal of Honor for her Meritorious Service. She is the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor, the United States' highest award.

Her medal was revoked, along with 910 others, by an act of congress in 1917 when the Medal of Honor standards were revised to include “actual combat with the enemy”. Mary refused to return her medal and wore it daily until her death. In 1977, an army board restored her medal, citing her “distinguished, gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex.”

After the war, Mary's activities became more political. She fought for women's rights (including changes in marriage and divorce laws), dress reform, and health and temperance issues. She traveled across America and abroad lecturing on her beliefs. During this time she also wrote two books, HIT, an autobiography and UNMASKED OR THE SCIENCE OF IMMORALITY, a book on the infidelity of men.

For most of her life, Mary was a strong proponent of dress reform, stating that women's clothing was immodest and inconvenient. She herself wore full male dress for the latter part of her life and was proud of her multiple arrests for wearing men's clothing. In 1866, she was elected president of the National Dress Reform Association. Her eccentricities, however, often alienated her from fellow reformists, especially suffragists. Noticeably, she was against a constitutional amendment for women's right to vote because she felt the constitution already gave women the right to vote.

She spent her last years on her family's Bunker Hill farm in Oswego. She died at her home on February 21, 1919 and is buried at the Rural Cemetery in the Town of Oswego.
For additional information on Mary, check out:
(this is a really good site, one I didn't read before I wrote this, so it's worth looking over for additional information.)

Anna Kathryn Lanier


Mary Ricksen said...

Interesting post, I love when you teach me something.
Mary was my kinda girl!

Maryann Miller said...

What a great history lesson. And it went down so well. :-)

I love the fact that Mary did not give up her medal and that she went to jail for wearing men's clothing.

What an amazing woman.

Susan Macatee said...

I did research years ago on Dr. Mary Walker. She truly is an amazing woman. And I loved that she refused to give up that medal.

Emma Lai said...

Wow! Great post. I love women pioneers and Dr. Walker certainly was one.

housemouse88 said...

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to learn something. I truly enjoy being inspired. Have a great day.

Paty Jager said...

Great info and a great American hero!

Jannine said...

You always have such interesting articles on your blog. I enjoyed reading about Mary Walker, M.D. and all she did. I had no idea that a woman of the 19th century was as accomplished as Mary. Good for her!

Skhye said...

You'll also like the only woman who ever joined the French Foreign Legion... ;) There's you a tidbit of history.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Thanks for all the comments. I really enjoyed learning about Mary. I think she was a woman who stood her ground, and that got her into trouble and caused her a bit of grief. But she never surrendered. I'm pleased with the fact she refused to return her medal, also. She was a doctor on the front lines and was a POW, you're really telling me she never saw an enemy combatant? hmmmm.

BTW, I forgot to put in the blog (cause it was about 11:00 last night when I wrote it) that I'm giving away a prize to someone who comments. But someone will win a Bath and Body Work gift bag....

Anne Carrole said...

What a woman! Thanks so much for writing her story. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Intelligent, purposeful and self-sacrificing, women like her truly paved the way for other women to follow. It's always sobering to see how confining life was just a few generations ago.

Phyllis Campbell said...

Wow! That is very interesting. She lead a very full life, and stuck to her belief. Good for her! Great blog, Anna Kathryn!


Latesha said...

What an amazing role model. I love how she stuck to her beliefs and didn't let others discourage her. Thanks for sharing her story with us.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Congratulations to Anne Carroll, she won my drawing for a Bath and Body Works bath gel and lotion set.

Thanks to everyone who stopped by.

Anna Kathryn

Donald Knowlton said...

Dr Was such a nonconformist tha I included a person, a familial decedent, Lady Knight Sir Aurora Walker Wolverine as a modern day knight and ex war her in one of my chapters.

Donald Knowlton said...

Dr Walker was such a nonconformist that I included a person, a familial decedent, Lady Knight Sir Aurora Walker Wolverine as a modern day knight and ex war hero in one of my chapters.