A Moment in Iowa History: Dr. Mary Edwards Walker - and the Iowa Connection
Dr. Mary Walker became the first (and to this date, the only) woman to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. She was a woman before her time and among her many achievements she was well known for always wearing pants. Cheryl Harness introduces us to this incredible woman from history and shares her unconventional path to the Medal of Honor. Harness's book serves to introduce young and old to this remarkable woman -- a woman who has Iowa Connections.
Harness, Cheryl. Mary Walker Wears the Pants: The True Story of the Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero. Illustrated by Carlo Molinari. Albert Whitman, 2013.
Mary Edwards Walker (November 26, 1832 – February 21, 1919)
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was among those who worked for women's right to vote in the years leading up to the granting of women’s suffrage. She was among the very unconventional women of her time, one of the first American feminists, and she supported abolition, prohibition, as well as, the right of women to vote. She was one of the first women doctors in the country and she wore pants! She served as a Union solider (in a modified uniform) during the Civil War, as a doctor. She became the only woman, to this day, to earn the the Medal of Honor.
Mary Edwards Walker was born in Oswego, New York. Her mother taught school and Walker’s father was a country doctor and farmer who encouraged education for his five daughters: Mary, Aurora, Luna, Vesta, and Cynthia, and their one son, Alvah. The girls’ often helped in the fields and their parents believed that the tight corsets and otherwise restrictive garments women generally wore in those days were unnecessary and hampered women’s ability to move about and do what was needed. As an adult Mary became an avid supporter of the issue of dress reform led by Amelia Bloomer. Bloomer defended the right of women to wear Turkish pantaloons – or “bloomers” as the bloused trousers came to be called. Eventually Mary Walker adapted the practice of wearing full men’s evening dress to lecture on Women’s Rights.
At the age of twenty-one (1855) Mary, graduated from Syracuse Medical College. She was the only female in her medical class and had spent three semesters (13 weeks each) in the study of medicine. Mary Edwards Walker is the second American woman to earn a medical degree (the first, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell earned a degree in 1849). The following year (1856) Walker married a fellow physician, Albert Miller. Both bride and groom wore a suit and top hat and Mary Walker continued to use her birth name. The two physicians established a medical practice in Rome, NY but the practice failed as few were ready to accept a female doctor.
The Iowa Connection
This period of time is when Dr. Mary Edward Waker became part of Iowa’s history. Dr. Walker separated from her husband after just four years of marriage (due, reportedly, to his unfaithfulness). In 1860, Walker became an active promoter of dress reform but before accepting a formal role in the organization working for reform, she wanted to finalize her divorce from Miller. New York’s laws required a five-year waiting period. So in the summer of 1860, Walker traveled to Iowa and stayed with a family friend in Delhi, hoping to take advantage of Iowa’s more lenient divorce laws and to avoid New York’s waiting period. The friend, Judge Albert E. House, was a former resident of Oswego and was willing to host her and to advise her on Iowa law. While in Iowa she briefly attended the relatively newly established Bowen Collegiate Institute (later Lenox College) in Hopkinton, Iowa. She protested that the college advertised that a student could study German at their institute but when she arrived the school had no German instructor. Dr. Walker did attend the institute, however, until she was suspended when she refused to quit the all-male debate society. Many of the male members supported her efforts and her protests of unequal rights. Her protest efforts resulted in many supporters in the Delhi-Hopkinton community but eventually her protests led to her full expulsion from the Institute. While she waited for her divorce, she was privileged to work with a local physician, Dr. Cunningham. Back in New York state, a long-time attorney friend, B.F. Chapman, learned of her efforts to obtain a divorce under the new laws in the state of Iowa. Chapman sent her a five-page brief. The brief detailed cases that made clear New York state would not recognize out-of-state divorces. Walker trusted Chapman and so she returned to Rome, NY the following summer without the divorce. That ended her physical connection to Iowa however, in the following years there would be at least one other connection to Iowa.
Civil War and the Medal of Honor
When the Civil War broke out Mary Walker attempted to join the Union Army. She was denied an official role so she volunteered in various field hospitals and positions. Eventually she was appointed to official Army duties. She always wore two pistols on her side, and dressed in a modified uniform – reportedly designed by a Mrs. Littlejohn of Delhi, Iowa (Leonard 246). She treated many soldiers and sometimes crossed Confederate lines to treat civilians. Some suggest that during this time she also served as a Union spy. Whatever the case, in 1864, she was captured and held prisoner in Richmond until she, along with other Union doctors, was exchanged for 17 Confederate surgeons.
After her release back to the 52nd Ohio Infantry she spent the remainder of the war practicing at a Louisville female prison and an orphan's asylum in Tennessee. She was awarded a military pension ($8.50, later raised to $20) but it was less than some widow’s pensions.
On November 11, 1865, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson, in recognition of her contributions during the war. She was the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor, her country's highest military award. The award was rescinded in 1917 when the “rules” were changed, but Dr. Walker refused to give up the medal and wore it every day, the rest of her life. Sixty years later, President Jimmy Carter restored the medal to her.
After the war she continued to campaign for the right of women to vote, and entered the political arena by becoming a candidate for Congress (1890) and for a U.S. Senate seat (1892). She has been honored with a United States Postage Stamp (1982) and inducted into the Seneca Falls (NY) Women’s Hall of Fame.
Resources:Graf, Mercedes. A Woman of Honor: Dr. Mary E. Walker and the Civil War. Thomas Publications, 2001.
Harris, Sharon. Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919. Rutgers University Press, 2009.
Leonard, Elizabeth. Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War. W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.
Snyder, Charles McCool. Dr. Mary Walker: the Little Lady in Pants. Arno Press, 1974.
The History of Delaware County, Iowa: Containing a History of the County, Its Cities, Towns, &c., a Biographical Directory of Its Citizens, War Record of Its Volunteers ... History of the Northwest, History of Iowa, Map of Delaware County, Constitution of the United States. Western historical Company, 1878.
Walker, Dale L. Mary Edwards Walker: Above and Beyond. Macmillan, 2005.