Mary Edwards Walker -- a woman ahead of her time

  • Published
  • By Mr. Arlan Ponder
  • 49th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Editor's note: This is part of a series for Women's History Month

Throughout history women have strived for equality -- both in the civilian world and military world. However, for one outspoken woman the recognition for her "valuable service to the Government" took a 60-year break.

Dr. Mary Edward Walker remains the only women ever to receive the Medal of Honor. She received the award in January 1866 and had it taken away during a "clean up of errors" in 1917 before finally having it restored in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter.

By today's standards Mary would be considered progressive, but in her time she was considered a revolutionary. Born in November 1832, at a time when women were considered little more than property, she grew up in rural New York the youngest of five daughters of Alvah and Vesta Walker. Her father was a free thinking man who believed in equality in education and dress for his daughters -- beliefs not wasted on young Mary.

After graduating from Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York, in 1852 she taught school in Minetto, New York, but her interest in medicine drove her to enroll in Syracuse Medical College. At that time, Syracuse was the only medical school in the country equally accepting men and women. In 1855, at the age of 21, Mary was the only female medical doctor in her graduating class.

Following graduation, Mary began her own medical practice in Columbus, Ohio. In those days Americans weren't receptive to a woman physician. In fact the belief of many males at that time could be summed up by G.W.F. Hegel, "Women are capable of education, but they are not made for activities which demand a universal faculty such as the more advanced sciences, philosophy and certain forms of artistic production."

Mary didn't let this failed attempt at independence hold her back. In 1856, she married Albert Miller, who was a fellow student at Syracuse. In their marriage ceremony, she never uttered the words "to obey," nor did she take his name. She also wore trousers and a dress coat to the ceremony. Their marriage lasted for 13 years, however, this was merely a technicality because no state would grant her a divorce from Albert.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Mary went to Washington, D.C. to join the Union Army. The commanders at the time declined her assistance so she volunteered as a nurse and joined the staff of the hospital set up in the U.S. Patent Office. During this time, she also helped organize the Women's Relief Association which provided lodging for wives, mothers and children of soldiers in Washington. In 1862, she journeyed to New York where she earned a second medical degree from Hygeia Therapeutic College.

Around this time, Mary began trying to introduce new field medical practices to the Union Army front lines, where she served as a field surgeon treating soldiers in a tent hospital. She felt by advising stretcher bearers to carry wounded soldiers with their heads elevated above their feet that this would help with the mortality rate. She also felt amputations were done too readily and encouraged many soldiers to refuse them.

The 52nd Ohio Infantry Regiment finally gave her the opportunity she had been wanting since she graduated from Syracuse - she was appointed a replacement surgeon. Though the feeling wasn't shared by his subordinates, Col. Dan McCook is said to have been grateful to have her. By contrast, the director of the medical staff for the regiment called Mary's placement "a medical monstrosity" and requested a review of her medical qualifications "doubting she knew much more than most housewives." Some men also questioned her alliances because she ventured into the swamps and low ground near the water to care for sick or near death Southern women and children who were hiding out from Union forces.

It was during one of these trips on April 10, 1864, that Mary "walked into" a group of Confederate soldiers just south of the Georgia-Tennessee border. Dressed in her uniform, which consisted trousers, an officer's jacket and two pistols, she was sent to prison as a spy. The debate over whether she was a spy, and for what side, remains a topic discussed by historians even today.

Even during her four-month confinement Mary was rebelling against the establishment. She not only treated prisoners with whatever provisions she could obtain, she complained about the lack of grain and vegetables for prisoners. Through her persistence, the Confederates were forced to add wheat bread and cabbage to the weekly rations.

On Aug. 12, 1864, she was released along with 24 other Union doctors as part of a prisoner exchange. She proudly said she was exchanged "man for man" after her exchange for a Confederate major.

Almost two months later, Mary finally received her commission as acting assistant surgeon -- becoming the first female surgeon commissioned in the Army. She continued her career with the military serving during the Battle of Atlanta before practicing at a female prison in Kentucky and an orphanage in Tennessee. She was discharged on June 15, 1865.

Following the Civil War, she was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Andrew Jackson on Nov. 11, 1865, at the recommendation of U.S. Major Generals William Sherman and George Thomas, in order to recognize her contributions to the war effort -- specifically during the First Battle of Bull Run. With the awarding, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker became the first and only female to receive the country's highest military award. However, in 1917 during a move to correct "decades of abuse," her medal was revoked -- along with more than 900 others because of their "lack of combat valor."

Some historians have speculated the reason she was asked to return the prestigious award was due to her ties with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott and women's suffrage. However, some discredit that opinion stating the reason for the revocation was to "increase the prestige of the award."

Like she had many times in her life, Mary defied the request to conform and continued wearing the "unearned" medal, thereby breaking the law. She continued to wear it, along with a black suit, pants, top hat, bow tie and wing collar, until the day she died in February 1919 at the age of 86 on the family farm in Oswego, New York.

During her funeral, an American Flag was draped over her casket and she was buried in a black suit. She died one year before the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which guaranteed women the right to vote.

"Until women have a voice in making laws," she wrote in her first book, "Hit". "They must of necessity be imperfect, as are all laws, where ... woman has had no voice in their making."

In 1977, following intensive lobbying by her great-grand niece, the Army Board authorized the reinstatement of the medal citing her "distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex."

In World War II, a ship was christened the SS Mary Walker, while in 1982 the postal service issued a 20 cent stamp in her honor. There is a U.S. Army Reserve center named for her in Walker, Michigan, and the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C. is named in her honor.

Throughout her life, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker distinguished herself as a patriot, doctor, suffrage leader, writer, lecturer and trendsetter.

In a 1999 American Forces Press Service story, an excerpt from a 1974 letter to her great-grand niece from the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee states "It's clear your great-grandaunt was not only courageous during the term she served as a contract doctor [and] as an outspoken proponent of feminine rights. She was much ahead of her time and, as usual, she was not regarded kindly by many of her contemporaries. Today she appears prophetic."

Today she serves as a reminder to Americans that women are as directly responsible for the freedoms we enjoy as their male counterparts.

"Let the generations know that women in uniform also guaranteed their freedom," she said.