Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

Library of Congress

For Women’s History Month, here’s a short piece I posted on Facebook about dress reformer, army surgeon, author, and eccentric Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919). (She doesn’t appear in The Queen of the Platform, as I have no evidence that she and Ernestine Rose ever met, but it would have been fun to overhear a conversation between these two women if their paths ever did cross.)

Born into a freethinking, abolitionist family that supported her ambitions, Mary graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855. Having married a fellow medical student, and entered into practice with him, she left her husband after he proved unfaithful. It would take her years to obtain a divorce.

An early advocate of women’s dress reform, who wore what became known as the “Bloomer costume,” Mary was one of the few who never returned to conventional women’s clothing; instead, she moved in the other direction and in her later years wore natty tailored suits and top hats. (On several occasions, she would be arrested for wearing “male attire.”)

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During the Civil War, Mary served as an army surgeon–and a spy, which eventually led to her imprisonment in Richmond’s Castle Thunder in 1864. After a few months, she was released as part of a prisoner exchange, after which she took up posts at Louisville’s Female Military Prison and at the Refugee House in Clarksville, Tennessee. She attended the trial of those accused of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President Lincoln; her Bloomer outfit caused considerable amusement on the part of some of the male defendants. President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor in November 1865.

Mary supported the women’s suffrage movement, but had an uneasy relationship with fellow activists, in part because she believed that the Constitution permitted women to vote without the need for further amendment, in part due to personality conflicts. In a book called Hit, she wrote on such subjects as dress reform, temperance, and divorce. She advocated for the right of married women to keep their maiden name and against child marriage. In a second book, Unmasked, or the Subject of Immorality, published anonymously, she touched upon the fraught subject of female sexuality, suggesting that husbands allow their wives to initiate sex. One of her successes was to persuade Congress to grant pensions to women who had served as hospital nurses during the Civil War.

Walker ran for the U.S. Senate in 1881, but attracted no support. (She had supported Victoria Woodhull’s unsuccessful candidacy for President.)

Due to a policy change about the criteria for earning a Medal of Honor, Mary’s medal (along with those of hundreds of male recipients) was revoked in 1917. She refused to return it. (It was restored by President Carter in 1977.)

Mary died on February 22, 1919. Had she lived 18 months longer, she would have seen the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

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There are several good biographies of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, including Sharon M. Harris’s Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919, Theresa Kaminski’s Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War, and Sara Latta’s book for young adult readers, I Could Not Do Otherwise: The Remarkable Life of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker.

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