Mary Walker and Her Knickerbockers

Late posting, again. This time I lagged because I was off on a business retreat where colleagues and I talked about fun things like serial commas, loaded language, the best way to cite weird and complicated documents in bibliographies, and how to make Word and InDesign your formatting bitches.  Then I came home to a proof copy of my book waiting for me to go through it and find all the horrible gaffes I missed in previous versions.  So that’s this weekend’s project.

First, though, some history!

This week in 1872, Washington, D.C. had a special form of celebrity striding along its boulevards. She was so well known that contemporary newspaper accounts only referred to her as “Dr. Walker.” And yet, she is virtually unknown today. Odds are you’ve heard of Susan B. Anthony. If you read Karen Abbott’s book, you’ve heard of Emma Edmonds. If you read my book when it comes out, you’ll know about Victoria Woodhull. So how many of you have heard of Mary Edwards Walker?

Honestly, the argument could be made that Dr. Walker was more of a badass and a way more useful human being than any of the other women mentioned above. She was a doctor, she was an abolitionist, and she’s still the only woman ever to win the Medal of Honor.

Part of the credit for her accomplishments must be given to her parents for her upbringing. Her mom raised her to know that women can—nay, should—pitch in with the men on hard farm labor, and her dad demonstrated that men are capable of whipping up as good a beef stew as any woman’s. Her parents were also responsible for founding the first free school house in Oswego, N.Y.,  in the late 1830s. When she was old enough, Mary taught school so she could pay her way through Syracuse Medical College, graduating with honors as a medical doctor in 1855. Naturally, she was the only woman in her class. And a fat lot of good it did her. Most people in those days didn’t think much of lady doctors, so her practice failed. Didn’t stop her, though.

She also took a dim view of women’s fashion—corsets were bad for the respiration; long skirts and petticoats were not only cumbersome, they were unhygienic,  spreading dust and dirt. Dr. Walker wore trousers from an early age. It’s interesting that there’s more commentary on her disdain for women’s fashion than just about anything else; she herself wrote two books on the issue. And it’s possible (though not necessarily probable) that if she had dressed more traditionally, she might have been taken more seriously in other areas.

In any event, this progressive was also (surprise!) an ardent abolitionist and suffragist. At the beginning of the American Civil War, she volunteered for the Union Army as a civilian, and was allowed to sign on—as a nurse. She served at the First Manassas and worked as an unpaid field surgeon near the front lines at the Battle of Fredericksburg and in Chattanooga. Apparently a supporter of women masquerading as men so they could serve as soldiers, Walker applied in 1862 to serve as a spy for the Union, but was declined. (The interwebz seem to indicate she did serve as a spy at some point, however.) In 1863, she became the first female surgeon employed by the U.S. Army Surgeon, later being appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. During her service, she frequently crossed battle lines and treated civilians. She was captured in 1864 by Confederate troops, arrested as a spy,and  imprisoned for four months in Richmond, Virginia, until her release as part of a prisoner exchange. After the war, she was recommended by Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George Henry Thomas for the highest U.S. Armed Forces decoration for bravery, the Medal of Honor, and approved by President Andrew Johnson.

The war having dealt with abolition, Walker hopped on the women’s suffrage bandwagon. She’d actually been preaching this well before most of her peers, and led the way in the argument that women already had the right to vote, and Congress needed only to enact enabling legislation. She attempted to register to vote in 1871, but was turned away. When it was clear Walker’s argument was getting them nowhere, the movement changed course and promoted the adoption of a constitutional amendment. Walker, unwilling or unable to change her position to gain the advantage, fell out of favor with the majority of her former sisters.

(As an aside, it’s fascinating—and more than a little depressing—to read the old news clippings about suffrage meetings and events. Even setting aside the somewhat sexist slant of most editors of the time, the women’s movement does appear to have been greatly hindered by what might be considered traditionally feminine shortcomings. In much the same way we have Mommy Wars today, so did the suffragists struggle with infighting and women undercutting one another to serve their own personal agendas. 150 years and we still can’t get out of each other’s way about skirt lengths, bottle-feeding, working outside the home, or anything else. Are these really the issues we should be focusing on to judge each other? Sheesh!)

Clothing continued to be a cause for Dr. Walker. Newspapers in 1872 discussed how the U.S. Commission of Patents would not allow her “military costume” to be included “in the glass cabinet containing the garments of Washington and Lincoln … as an historic relic for the inspection of future generations!” adding that “the breeches are said to be much admired.” In other clips, the “Dr. Mary Walker style is the prevailing fashion for bathing suits,” and she is reported as appearing “on the streets of Washington in Dolly Varden coat and pants. She looked jaunty though.” I think my favorite retort of hers was, “I do not wear men’s clothing. I wear my own clothing.” She was reportedly arrested on a few occasions for impersonating a man. (She’s not the only one. Plenty of women were arrested for violating anti-cross-dressing laws over the years.)

In 1917, Congress dealt Dr. Walker a dirty blow, although she was likely just collateral damage. Lawmakers created a pension act for Medal of Honor recipients, leading the Army to review eligibility for inclusion on its Medal of Honor Roll and changing the rules to require “active combat.” As a result, the review board chopped Walker from the list, along with 910 other people (including Buffalo Bill Cody). But she wasn’t ordered to return her medal, and she continued to wear it until her death two years later in 1919 (when she was buried in a black suit). Her medal was restored posthumously in 1977.

There are a number of books about Walker. Pick one up, and learn more about one of your foremothers!



About arwenbicknell

Editor by day, author by night.
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