Walker, Mary Edwards, 1832-1919

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1832-11-26
Death 1919-02-21
English

Biographical notes:

Mary Edwards Walker was a Civil War physician, suffragist, and dress reformer.

From the description of Postcard, 1888. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 232007785

Suffragette and pioneer female surgeon.

From the description of Papers, 1885-1898, [Washington, D.C.] (Duke University). WorldCat record id: 35663594

Dr. Mary Edward Walker was a resident of Oswego Town, New York and is remembered as the first women to publicly wear pants. Her attire was not her only mark in history, for she was recognized as the first woman army medical doctor during the American Civil War and was a Medal of Honor recipient. She later became an active women's rights advocate and worked feverishly for the cause until the day of her death.

From the description of Mary E. Walker letters, 1915. (SUNY Oswego). WorldCat record id: 30053927

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was a Civil War medical worker, women's dress reformer, and early American feminist.

From the description of Mary E. Walker records, 1916-1918. (SUNY Oswego). WorldCat record id: 29821253

Civil War medical worker, dress reformer, and suffragette.

From the description of Research collection, 1855-1984. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 155458996

Mary Edwards Walker (Nov. 26, 1832- Feb. 21, 1919) was an American Civil War medical worker, dress reformer, and eccentric. She was born in Oswego Town near Oswego, N.Y., the daughter of Vesta (Whitcomb) Walker, a cousin of the agnostic lecturer Robert C. Ingersoll, and Alvah Walker, farmer, Methodist, self-taught student of medicine, and, like his wife, a descendant of early New England settlers. (See Whitcomb Family Tree and Walker Family Tree .) Mary had four older sisters (including Luna and Aurora Borealis) and a younger brother. After studying in the local common school, she attended Falley Seminary, Fulton, N.Y., for two winter terms (1850-52) and, after teaching briefly, entered Syracuse Medical College in December 1853. Graduating in 1855, she practiced for a few months in Columbus, Ohio, and then returned to Rome, N.Y. Small and slender, assertive but not unattractive, she was married in November to Albert Miller of Rome, a fellow medical student. Though she never adopted his name, the two practiced medicine together in Rome for several years.

As a girl Mary Walker had scorned confining female clothing, and when the "bloomer" vogue flourished briefly in the early 1850s she adopted the new costume with alacrity. In January 1857 she joined Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck of Middletown, N.Y., and others in a dress reform convention and began contributing regularly to Mrs. Hasbrouck's reformist periodical, the Sibyl . In 1859 occurred a painful separation from her husband, occasioned by his unfaithfulness and possibly by conjugal incompatibility. She unsuccessfully sought a divorce in Iowa the following year; eventually, in 1869, she won a New York decree. During the Iowa interlude she briefly attended the Bowen Collegiate Institute in Hopkinton, but was suspended when she refused to resign from the hitherto all-male debating society.

When the Civil War broke out, Mary Walker journeyed to Washington and, while vainly seeking appointment as an army surgeon, served as an unpaid volunteer in the Patent Office Hospital and helped organize the Women's Relief Association, to aid women visiting relatives stationed in the capital. She continued her work in 1862, with time off for visits to Oswego and to New York City, where she stayed long enough to earn a degree from the New York Hygeio-Therapeutic College. That autumn she ventured into the Virginia battle zone and, though still without official standing, rendered assistance at tent hospitals in Warrenton and Fredericksburg. In September 1863 she went to Tennessee and at last won appointment as an assistant surgeon from Gen. George H. Thomas, despite sharp protests from the medical director of the Army of the Cumberland and from the men of the 52nd Ohio Regiment, encamped near Gordon's Mills, Tenn., to which she was assigned. She wore the same uniform as that of her fellow officers. She often passed through Confederate lines to minister to the medical needs of the civilian populace, and while on such a foray in April 1864 she was captured and transported to Richmond, where she was imprisoned for several months. In August she was freed in a prisoner exchange and returned to Washington. Given a contract as an "acting assistant surgeon" later that year, she rendered brief service as supervisor of a hospital for women prisoners in Louisville, Ky., and then as head of an orphanage in Clarksville, Tenn. Her imperious ways and tactlessness, however, antagonized both her subordinates and the local citizenry; early in 1865 she was ordered to Washington and shortly thereafter she left the government's service. Later in the year she received the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service.

As a Civil War celebrity Dr. Walker enjoyed a brief fame in the immediate postwar years. In 1866 the dwindling adherents of the National Dress Reform Association elected her president, and in the same year she met with some success on an English lecture tour. Returning to the United States in 1867, she lived for a few years with a young Washington teacher and would-be attorney, Belva Lockwood, and for a time the two women jointly promoted various feminist causes, particularly woman suffrage. Mary Walker was active in the Central Women's Suffrage Bureau of Washington and made occasional appearances at Congressional hearings. In 1869, on a lecture tour of the Midwest, she participated in a Cincinnati suffrage convention attended by Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony, and in 1872 she made an unsuccessful effort to vote in Oswego Town. She rapidly alienated the suffragists, however, because of her growing eccentricity and because, having persuaded herself that women already possessed the right to vote under the federal Constitution, she rejected as "trash" the proposed suffrage amendment. Though the suffragists were quite ready to publicize and magnify her war service to aid the feminist cause, she herself became an increasingly unwelcome gadfly at suffrage gatherings. By 1907, when she set down her suffrage views in a pamphlet called Crowning Constitutional Argument, she was virtually without influence. Her medical proficiency was often challenged, and she enjoyed no standing in that profession; apparently she did not practice after the war. Her unremitting efforts to secure a pension for her war duty were only partially successful. She also sought to return to government service and in 1882 was given a job in the mail room of the Pension Office. She was dismissed the following year, however, for alleged insubordination.

Only dress reform remained, but this too turned into eccentricity when she adopted as her regular garb not only trousers but a masculine jacket, shirt, stiff wing collar, bow tie, and top hat. Cut off even from those sympathetic to this reform, she became increasingly an object of ridicule. She had earlier turned to writing and had produced Hit (1871), a rambling autobiographical and speculative work, and Unmasked, or the Science of Immorality (1878), which with its extended discussion of various sexual matters, including a chapter on "hermaphrodites," perhaps provides a clue to her own confused and unhappy personality. In 1887 she made the first of several Midwestern tours in a dime museum sideshow. She spent most of her time after 1890 in Oswego Town, where the family farm had come into her hands. Here she was thought a harmless eccentric, though her behavior at times was less than benign, as in 1891 when she undertook an elaborate campaign to implicate her hired man in a New Hampshire murder, apparently in an effort to collect the $5,000 reward.

Old age brought no tranquillity. She was forever involved in litigation with relatives and tenants, and a vague plan to turn her farm into a training school for young ladies came to nothing. In 1917 the federal Board of Medal Awards, as part of a general review, declared that her Civil War citation had been unwarranted and officially withdrew it. She continued to wear her Medal of Honor, however, representing as it did a fading period when her life had held some dignity and meaning. In the same year came a final heady burst of publicity when she sent a long telegram to Kaiser Wilhelm offering her Oswego farm as a peace conference site. Now alone and poverty-stricken, she was largely ignored even by her relatives. A fall from the Capitol steps in Washington in 1917 hastened her death two years later, at eighty-six, in the home of a neighbor. Following simple ceremonies she was buried in her black frock suit in the family plot in the Oswego Town rural cemetery.

[Biographical sketch taken from Notable American Women (1971).]

From the guide to the Mary Edwards Walker Papers, 1799-1919, (Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries)

Physician.

From the description of Mary Edwards Walker, 1832-1919 papers, 1915-1919. (New York State Historical Documents). WorldCat record id: 155569077

From the description of Mary Edwards Walker, 1832-1919 papers, 1855-1980, 1861-1919 (bulk). (New York State Historical Documents). WorldCat record id: 155568699

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Subjects:

  • Clothing and dress
  • Women physicians--United States
  • Army
  • New York State
  • Women physicians
  • Military history
  • Activism and social reform
  • Women's rights
  • Suffrage
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Women authors, American
  • Lecturers
  • Women in medicine
  • Suffragists
  • Women--Suffrage
  • National Museum
  • Science and medicine
  • Suffragists--United States
  • Feminists
  • Women social reformers--United States
  • Women--Health and hygiene
  • Divorce suits
  • Women--Political activity
  • Military pensions--United States--Civil War, 1861-1865
  • Civil war
  • Lectures and lecturing
  • Women's rights--United States

Occupations:

  • Physicians
  • Suffragists

Places:

  • Oswego, NY, US