During the Civil War, women weren’t allowed to vote or have bank accounts, were still subject to Victorian ideals of homemaking and motherhood as the sole purpose of female existence, and had little personal or political agency. And yet hundreds of them served in the war undocumented, dressed as men. Singular among them was the surgeon, feminist, and abolitionist Mary Edwards Walker (November 26, 1832 – February 21, 1919), who is to this day the only woman awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest accolade of the American military, and one of only eight civilians to have ever received it.
Walker, who first became interested in medicine through her father’s collection of anatomical books, paid her way through medical college by teaching at the local elementary school and received her medical doctor degree as the only woman in her class. Shortly before she turned twenty-four, she married her college classmate Albert Miller while wearing pants and a man’s coat. The two opened a medical practice together, but general distrust in female physicians’ competence caused the practice to peter out. When the marriage failed due to Miller’s infidelity four years later, Walker opened a practice on her own and it thrived, both as a business and as a social statement. One of her newspaper ads read:
Those … who prefer the skill of a female physician … have now an excellent opportunity to make their choice.
When the Civil War began, Walker volunteered as a civilian in the Union Army, but was only allowed to practice as a nurse despite her training — the American army had no female surgeons. A suffragette and actively invested in women’s rights, she eventually made her way to working as an unpaid field surgeon on the front lines and even applied to the Secret Service in 1862, offering to spy on the enemy. She was rejected. A year later, however, she was appointed as “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)” in the Army of the Cumberland and thus became the first-ever female surgeon employed by the American military.
In the spring of 1864, she was captured by the Confederate army and spent four months as a prisoner of war in Virginia, until she was released in a prisoner exchange.
Once the war ended, Walker became a writer, lecturer, and vocal proponent of women’s rights and dress reform. At a time when women wore dresses, Walker walked in pants and proudly declared:
I wear this style of dress from the highest, the purest, and the noblest principle!
In 1865, Walker was recommended for the Medal of Honor by two army generals and President Andrew Johnson signed a bill to present her the medal, citing her “valuable service to the government,” her devotion “with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health,” and her having endured “hardships as a prisoner of war.”
In 1917, however — two years before her death — a review board checked the eligibility of medal recipients and revoked 911 of those awarded, including Walker’s, on the ground that she wasn’t actually a member of the military. Walker, eighty-five at the time, refused to give her medal back. While the army never asked the unfortunate 911 non-honorees — who included Buffalo Bill — to actually return their medals, their names were erased from the Army Medal of Honor Roll.
Six decades later, and fifty-eight years after Walker’s death, president Jimmy Carter reinstated her medal, citing her “distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex.” In 1982, the U.S. Postal Service commemorated with a stamp — but depicted her in a lavish dress, with curls, even though she took great pride in wearing only men’s clothes and rejecting the era’s dress norms for women. Whether the error is an example of institutional laziness, historical ignorance, or a posthumous form of oppression remains a matter of interpretation.
Learn more: Mary Walker Wears the Pants | Wikipedia | Gay History Project