Sunday, July 21, 2013

July 21: Mary Edward Walker

On this date in History .... July 21, 1861:

Dr. Mary Walker, a Civil War surgeon and the nation's first female surgeon , was awarded the Medal of Honor, for her efforts at Bull Run on July 21,1861, becoming the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor and one of only eight civilians to ever receive it. She was recommended for the medal after the war by General William Tecumseh Sherman. President Andrew Johnson signed his approval in 1865. 

Her name was removed from the honor list of awardees in 1917, along with others, when the terms used to designate eligibility for the award were reappraised. She refused to surrender the medal, however, and continue to wear it for the rest of her life. In 1977, thanks to the efforts of her family and a Congressional reappraisal of her achievements, the honor was restored.

Mary Walker
Dr. Walker was a militant feminist before the word became part of our vocabulary and worked especially hard on "dress reform" as part of women's emancipation.

Born a farmer’s daughter, she did not wear women’s clothing doing farm labor because it was too restricting and refused to “dress as a woman” while doing medical work during the war. The only women in her 1855 medical class, after graduation she married a doctor but kept her own name. She volunteered as a surgeon, working on the front lines.

She refused to wear cumbersome skirts while doing medical work during the Civil War. On April 10, 1864, when she took a wrong turn on a road, she was captured and accused of being a spy since she was “disguised” in men’s clothing, making her the first female POW.  Upon release, she worked in a women’s prison, where the women prisoners didn’t like her wardrobe of long pants and a tunic & asked for a “real” (man) doctor. 

Mary Walker
After the war she became a writer/speaker in the suffrage movement, particularly on the topic of women’s clothing.  She was arrested for impersonating a man several times, although she argued that Congress had awarded her special permission to dress in this way.


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