Mary Edwards Walker was born into a society where strict gender roles controlled the lives of women. Thankfully, due to the unusual outlook of her progressive parents, she grew up to be an example of what women could achieve.
She was born in 1832 in the Town of Oswego, New York State. Mary was the youngest of seven children. Her parents were determined their son and six daughters were given equal opportunities. Dissatisfied with the standard approach in schools, they founded their own local school to ensure girls would receive the same education as boys. She was also encouraged to wear the more practical boys’ clothes instead of the constricting clothes designed for women at the time. This became a habit that lasted her whole life.
Mary’s ambition was to become a doctor at a time when few women followed that path. Mary applied to Syracuse Medical College, one of the few faculties that allowed women to study alongside men. Despite the University’s commitment to gender equality, when Mary graduated in 1855, she was the only woman in her class.
Mary tended the wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg
When the Civil War began in 1861, Mary volunteered to join the Union Army. Despite her qualifications, she was not taken on as the army did not recognize female surgeons.
As the war progressed, she was able to use her skills and worked as a volunteer surgeon. She was on the front lines at some of the most famous battles including the First Battle of Bull Run, Battle of Fredericksburg and the Battle of Chickamauga.
Eventually, the Union Army changed its policy. Perhaps it realized that highly skilled women like Mary were too good a resource to waste. In 1863 she became the first women to be appointed as an Army surgeon serving first with the Army of the Cumberland and later with the 52nd Ohio Infantry.
True to her medical vows Mary’s priority was to relieve suffering wherever she found it and she was prepared to cross battle lines to fulfill her obligations.
On April 10, 1864, while assisting a surgeon from the Confederate Army with an amputation she was captured and imprisoned. The Confederates thought she must be a spy. Mary remained a prisoner in the South for several months before being released as part of a prisoner exchange. She was able to return to her role with the 52nd Ohio.
Perhaps due to her experience in prison, she later took a post looking after female prisoners.
Medal of Honor Controversy
In 1865 Mary Edwards Walker received the Medal of Honor in recognition of her services to the government and the “patriotic zeal” with which she devoted herself to tending the wounded.
However, in 1917 Congress revised the criteria for the Medal of Honor to include only those involved in active combat. This resulted in 910 recipients including Mary being asked to hand back their medals. Mary refused and continued to wear it until her death two years later at the age of 86.
In 1977 the decision was reversed, and her medal was posthumously reinstated meaning she remains the only woman to have received this honor.