Walker, Mary Edwards (1832–1919)

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Walker, Mary Edwards (1832–1919)

Surgeon awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for her service during the Civil War, who asserted the rights of women in the medical profession, became an active supporter of suffrage and broader divorce rights for women, and challenged the impractical and unhealthy nature of women's dress . Born on November 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York; died in Oswego on February 21, 1919; daughter of Alvah Walker (a carpenter-farmer) and Vesta (Whitcomb) Walker; received a common school education in Oswego until 1850, then attended Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York, for two terms; obtained medical degree from Syracuse Medical College, 1855, and second medical degree from Hygeia Therapeutic College (New York), 1862; married Dr. Albert Miller, in 1855 (divorced 1869); no children.

Taught in Minetto, New York (1852); began medical practice in Columbus, Ohio (1855); moved practice to Rome, New York (1855); wrote letters to Dr. Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck's publication Sybil that helped to launch a crusade for dress reform (1857); elected a vice-president of National Dress Reform Association (1860 and 1863); became volunteer assistant to Union Army surgeon at Patent Office Hospital in Washington, D.C. (1861); assigned to tent hospital near Fredericksburg (1862); assigned as surgeon to the 52nd Ohio Infantry regiment in Tennessee (1863); captured by Confederates (April 10, 1864); released after four months in prisoner exchange from Castle Thunder, in Richmond (August 1864); commissioned as acting assistant surgeon (October 1864); awarded Congressional Medal of Honor (1866); elected president of National Dress Reform Association (1866); made lecture tour of England (1866); helped organize Women's Suffrage Association for Ohio (1869); published Hit, about divorce (1871); published Unmasked, or the Science of Immorality, about infidelity in men (1878); was a candidate for Congress (1890); was a candidate for U.S. Senate (1891); was a delegate to Democratic National Convention (1892); published "Crowning Constitutional Argument," on women's franchise (1907).

In late 1863, the 52nd Ohio Infantry regiment of the Union Army was located southeast of Chattanooga, Tennessee, when Mary Edwards Walker arrived there as a volunteer surgeon, dispatched by General George H. Thomas, Union commander of the Cumberland, to replace the regiment's doctor who had recently died. Those to whom her services were offered were outraged. According to Walker's biographer Charles McCool Snyder, the director of the medical staff under General Thomas' command, a Dr. Perin, considered the idea of a female surgeon a "medical monstrosity," and called for a review by an army medical board of Walker's qualifications. The board itself doubted "whether she has pursued the study of medicine" and concluded that her medical knowledge in areas other than obstetrics was "not much greater than most housewives." According to the regimental historian, Reverend Nixon B. Stewart, the men of the 52nd Ohio not only worried about the new doctor's skills, but suspected that her frequent excursions from camp to care for local residents nearby might be a cover for her activities as a spy.

At the end of the war, Dr. Mary Walker paid a visit to the regiment, suggesting that strong personal attachments had developed despite the men's initial resistance. During her tour of duty, according Snyder, the regiment was in "good health," allowing Walker the opportunity to care for residents of the area, and even help young men hiding out in nearby swamps to avoid Confederate impressment. In January 1866, her unique service to her country was acknowledged when she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, presented to her by President Andrew Johnson.

Her choice of careers was not the only way Mary Edwards Walker defied the conventions of her day. At a time when corsets and hoopskirts were meant to define a woman's attractiveness and gentility, she spurned such dress as uncomfortable, impractical, and such a hindrance to free movement as to limit women's labor potential.

The strength of Mary Walker's belief in the fulfillment of women's potential is not surprising in light of her childhood. She was born on November 26, 1832, three months after her family moved to a 33-acre farm near Oswego, New York, on Lake Ontario. Her parents were Alvah Walker, a native of Greenwich, Massachusetts, and a carpenter by trade, and Vesta Whitcomb Walker , who had given birth to four older daughters—Vesta, Aurora, Luna , and Cynthia . In 1822, soon after their marriage, the couple had set out for Kentucky, but a stop at Vesta's uncle's homestead in Owasco, New York, had persuaded them that the Erie Canal being built nearby offered much work for a young carpenter, so they had settled first in Syracuse. Ten years later, Oswego was also booming, as the Oswego Canal connected it with the Erie Canal. On his land, Alvah built the town's first schoolhouse, where his daughters, and his son, Alvah, Jr., born in 1833, were educated.

In this family of mostly daughters, girls supplied the farm labor. The elder Alvah did not expect his daughters to wear restrictive clothing like corsets in their work, and he intended for all of his children to be educated for professional careers. Vesta became licensed to teach in the county, and after Mary showed an interest in her father's medical books, acquired when he had contracted measles, she was encouraged to pursue medicine.

In the 1840s, upstate New York was fertile intellectual ground for a progressive-minded young woman. In 1848, when Mary Walker was 16, the first Women's Rights Convention met at nearby Seneca Falls. The Walkers were evangelicals and believers in the Abolitionist movement who attended Methodist and Baptist services held by revivalist evangelical preachers roaming throughout the area. During the winters of 1850–51, Mary was educated at Falley Seminary in nearby Fulton, previously attended by her sisters Luna and Aurora; beginning in 1852, she taught at Minetto, New York, and saved money for her medical studies.

Despite social restrictions, the 1850s gave some benefits to women wanting to enter the medical profession. As the U.S. frontier expanded westward, doctors were in high demand, causing the opening of many medical schools. As competition for students increased among these schools, some became willing to accept women, and Mary Walker was admitted to Syracuse Medical College in December 1853. In June 1855, after courses in anatomy and physiology, surgery, medical pathology, obstetrics, diseases of women and children, therapeutics and pharmacy, chemistry, and medical jurisprudence, she received her medical degree, the only woman in her class.

That same year, Dr. Walker moved to Columbus, Ohio, the hometown of her father's sister, to open her first medical practice. According to Snyder, people there were reluctant to visit a female doctor, but Walker had another reason to leave, when she received a marriage proposal from Dr. Albert Miller of Rome, New York. The marriage took place that year, and the couple set up a common practice in Rome, where Mary demonstrated her independence by declining to use the surname Miller.

Four years later, after her husband proved unfaithful, the couple separated, and Walker moved into smaller rooms for her living quarters and office. Information on her financial status at the time is sketchy, but though competition was stiff, she offered a viable medical alternative to the people of Rome, and appears to have enjoyed some success. The Rome Sentinel commented on one of her ads, "Those … who prefer the skill of a female physician … have now an excellent opportunity to make their choice."

In 1857, Walker began to contribute to Sybil, the publication of Dr. Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck of Middletown, New York. Hasbrouck had participated in the Bloomerite movement in the late 1840s, named after Amelia Jenks Bloomer , which encouraged women to wear breeches, or pants. Now Walker began to address the issue of conventional women's dress as a barrier to their good health and successful labor. She herself wore a tunic or dress coat, gathered at the waist, which extended slightly below the knees, over pants and a high-collared undergarment. Walker championed this style over the long skirts or dresses worn with hoops and corsets, which could restrict circulation to the legs, place too much weight on the shoulders, and also pick up and carry dirt. Worn in public, especially on trains and carriages, according to Walker's claims, the space-consuming styles also added to the difficulties of transportation, encumbering women and annoying men.

Women cannot be deprived of God-given rights, or of Republican rights, without men being sufferers as well as women.

—Mary Edwards Walker

In 1857, Walker's published views earned her a place on the program of the second Re-form-Dress Association Convention, in Syracuse. That December, she lectured on reform dress in Black River, New York, near Watertown, and in 1860 she was one of nine vice-presidents elected at the National Dress Reform Association Convention in Waterloo, New York.

During the summer of 1860, Walker was in Delhi, Iowa, the hometown of a family friend, hoping to secure a divorce under that state's more lenient laws. The following summer, she returned to Rome without her divorce, probably because of her concerns due to the outbreak of the Civil War. Shortly after the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, the war's first large-scale battle, Walker arrived in Washington, D.C., to volunteer her medical services. Her first assignment was to the hospital established in the U.S. Patent Office, where she became a de facto assistant to Dr. J.N. Green. Despite recommendations made by Green, she was never commissioned by Surgeon General Clement Finley. Her authority in the hospital eventually became comparable to Green's, however, and her volunteer status gave her the freedom to come and go as she pleased. At one point, she personally accompanied a critically wounded soldier to his home in Rhode Island. Also in 1861, Walker helped to organize the Women's Relief Association, designed to provide lodging for the wives, mothers, and children of soldiers with nowhere to go in Washington. When necessary, she opened her own home to these women. In 1862, posted to Forest Hall Prison in Georgetown, she decided her services were not crucial and returned to New York to attain a second medical degree, from Hygeia Therapeutic College.

By November 1862, Walker was back in Washington. During the last weeks of 1862 and early in 1863, following the Battle of Fredericksburg, she was treating the wounded at a nearby tent hospital, where she made at least an attempt to reform medical military treatment, cautioning stretcher bearers not to carry the wounded downslope with the head lower than the feet. She also believed many amputations were unnecessary, and encouraged several wounded soldiers at the Patent Office Hospital to refuse the surgery. According to Snyder, her volunteer status and aversion to the procedure suggest that she did not actually perform amputations during the war.

Two anecdotes about Walker during her service at the Patent Office Hospital demonstrate her independence of mind about proper female roles. When Dorothea Dix , head of the nursing corps for the Union army, paid a visit, Dix declared her disapproval of the presence of the "young and good-looking" doctor. Dix wanted to minimize the possibility of impropriety by hiring only older, plain women for hospital work, a position which Walker found absurd. At another time, Walker took a walk outside the hospital to get a breath of fresh air on a warm evening. When a man asked where she was going, she pulled out a revolver, aimed at him, and then fired into the air. Years later, she recalled that she was never again accosted by a man after that.

During her service with the 52nd Ohio Infantry Regiment, Walker once held troop inspection for Colonel McCook, the regimental commanding officer, on a morning when he was called away. On one of her journeys to care for people in the countryside, she was captured by a Confederate sentry, and spent the next four months as a prisoner of war at Castle Thunder, near Richmond, Virginia. In captivity, her complaints about the lack of grain and vegetables in the prisoners' diet led the Confederates to add wheat bread and cabbage to the Union rations at Castle Thunder. On August 12, 1864, she was released in a prisoner exchange for a Confederate surgeon with the rank of major.

Walker continued her appeal for a commission throughout her service in Tennessee. Her request for placement—in a female wing of a hospital or anywhere the army might need her—was carried all the way to President Abraham Lincoln, and refused. In September 1864, she was granted $432.36 for her services since March 11 of that year, although she had been in Castle Thunder most of the time. On October 5, she finally became the only female surgeon commissioned in the army, with the title of acting assistant surgeon and a monthly salary of $100.

After her release from Castle Thunder, Walker served for about six months at the Women's Prison Hospital in Louisville, where she was quickly disillusioned by the ingratitude and disloyal talk of the prisoners and the unwillingness of other officers to impose discipline. She next administered an orphan asylum in Clarksville, Tennessee, until her discharge on June 15, 1865.

The Congressional Medal of Honor awarded her in 1866 made Walker no less controversial. That year in a New York City milliner's shop, she was surrounded by a crowd because of her unorthodox dress. For her protection, the shopkeeper called the police, but when she defiantly refused to identify herself to the arriving officer, he arrested her. Walker later took action against the officer, gaining a hearing before the police commissioner; he agreed that she had every right to wear her preferred outfit, and assured her that she would no longer be bothered by police officers. In the 1870s, boys in Washington harassed her by asking her for chewing tobacco, but she did not back down. In fact, her attire grew even less conventional, as she began to don coats and shirts with ties.

Following the war, Walker worked to get relief bills for war nurses through Congress, but the bills died in committee. Efforts to gain a pension for herself were especially frustrating. An eye injury sustained during the war had resulted in partial muscular atrophy, for which she received $8.50 per month. Walker, believing the optical problem to be temporary, claimed to have refused an earlier offer of $25 per month, but the disability continued to interfere with her medical work. Beginning in 1872, she asked for either a $24 monthly stipend or a $10,000 lump sum. Reportedly, her unorthodox wardrobe was one reason why the 1872 petition to Congress was rejected; finally, in 1890, she was granted $20 per month, including the earlier $8.50 pension.

Walker earned most of her money by going on the lecture circuit immediately after the war. In 1866–67, she toured Great Britain for six months, lecturing on her own experiences, dress reform, and women's rights, and arguing that women should certainly enjoy voting rights in a country with a queen (Victoria ) on the throne. In November 1866 and February 1867, she lectured at St. James's Hall in London, and received favorable reviews despite cat-calls and police intervention for order.

Back in the United States, Walker resumed her crusade for dress reform and women's suffrage, lecturing and writing for publications. In 1868, she gave a speech before the Universal Franchise Association in Washington and testified with Belva Lockwood before the Judiciary Committee of the District of Columbia House of Delegates (then the district's legislative body), which was considering a bill to allow women in the district to vote; the bill did not pass.

In 1866, Walker had been elected president of the National Dress Reform Association. In 1869, she and her long-time friend Dr. Lydia Hasbrouck addressed the Mutual Dress Reform and Equal Rights Association in Washington. That September, she joined Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone in Cincinnati to organize the Women's Suffrage Association for Ohio; in August, she had also participated as a D.C. delegate in the National Working Men's Convention in Philadelphia. As well, she served on the Central Women's Suffrage Bureau, coordinating activities for suffrage.

In 1869, Walker was finally granted a divorce by the State of New York. Two years later, in 1871, she published her views on divorce in the book Hit. Her concern was for more equitable divorce laws so that women and children would not be trapped in unhappy homes. Tied to this point, she realized, was the need for women to vote: "[U]ntil women have a voice in making [marriage laws], they must of necessity be imperfect, as are all laws, where … woman has had no voice in their making." She used the language of republicanism in her discussion of marriage, believing that it should be a "contract" between "equal" partners: "No young lady, when she is being courted … for a moment supposes that her lover can … ever wish her to be his slave."

In 1878, her second book, Unmasked, or The Science of Immorality, discussed the issue of unfaithful men, and blamed men's toleration of their own sexual improprieties on their childhood education, suggesting that the experience of her marriage was still a painful memory.

After the failure of the D.C. women's voting rights bill, Walker and Lockwood decided to create a legal challenge by joining with five other women in bringing petitions before the D.C. election board, requesting that they be registered to vote. Here also, Walker employed a republican argument, telling the board, "You imprison women for crimes you have forbidden women to legislate upon." The request was refused.

In 1872, after Walker was again rebuffed when she tried to vote in Oswego, a subsequent strategy left her separated from the mainstream suffrage movement. When Susan B. Anthony was indicted and fined for illegally voting in Rochester, most of the leadership, including Anthony, Lockwood, and Anna Howard Shaw , decided to push for a constitutional amendment for suffrage rights. Walker believed that since the Constitution was addressed to "We the People," without mention of gender, and allowed the several states to determine eligible voters for Congress, such an amendment was unnecessary. In her view, what was needed were state acts declaring all restrictions on women's voting rights null and void; then women could be electors for the House of Representatives. She also favored a declaratory act to give women the same voting rights protection given to male blacks under the 15th Amendment.

These were the beliefs summarized in Walker's "Crowning Constitutional Argument," published in pamphlet form in 1907, and previously supported by U.S. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase in the 1870s. In 1912 and 1914, Walker made her argument before the House Judiciary Committee, and before the New York State Constitutional Convention's Suffrage Committee in 1915. Feelings on the issue ran so deep that Mary called the suffrage movement's leadership "desirous of graft" when they raised funds for trips to Washington that would have been rendered unnecessary if her argument had been carried out.

Assertive and unrelenting in her political activism, Walker became alienated from the Republican Party after President Ulysses S. Grant failed to support temperance reform, continued to use tobacco, and was accused of nepotism. In 1890, she declared herself a candidate for Congress in Oswego, and in 1891 she campaigned for a U.S. Senate seat. The following year, she paid her own way to the Democratic National Convention.

After her father's death in 1880, Walker inherited the Bunker Hill Farm, where she lived during the last decades of her life, traveling often between Washington and Oswego. According to Snyder, she was sometimes overbearing toward farm tenants, and she quarreled with her brother Alvah when he took in their mother, though their father's will had named Walker to care for her. When Walker refused to allow Alvah use of her stables in compensation, he was angered. Walker remained more attached to her sister Aurora, who cared for her affairs when Walker was away until Aurora's death in May 1900. After that time, Mary planned to use the farm as a colony for young single women wanting to learn farming and domestic tasks before marriage. In April 1917, during World War I, she even wrote to Kaiser Wilhelm II, offering her land as the site of a German-American peace conference, but neither of these plans was ever realized.

In 1917, Mary Edwards Walker was 85 years old when she fell on the Capitol steps in Washington. She never completely recovered and died two years later, on February 21, 1919, while staying at the home of a neighbor in Oswego. That year saw the ratification of the 19th Amendment which she had opposed. But she had also lived to see the advent of the automobile and changes in women's dress. Mary Edwards Walker was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame at Seneca Falls, New York, in the autumn of 2000.


Snyder, Charles McCool. Dr. Mary Walker: The Little Lady in Pants. NY: Vantage Press, 1962.

U.S. 63rd Congress, 2nd Session. House Committee on the Judiciary Hearings on Women's Suffrage, Serial 11, Part 1, March 3, 1914. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1914.

Walker, Mary Edwards. A Woman's Thoughts about Love and Marriage (alternative title of Hit). NY: James Miller, 1871.


Walker papers located at Syracuse University and at the Oswego (New York) County Historical Society.

Wes Borucki , doctoral candidate, Department of History, the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama

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