Join Morgan Farr as she shares why all military women should know about Dr. Mary Walker: Doctor, Advocate, and the First of a Kind.
Dr. Mary Walker: Doctor, Advocate, and First of a Kind
by Morgan Farr
Mary Edwards Walker was born in Oswego, New York, in November of 1832. Her parents were ardent abolitionists who placed a high value on education, so much so that they started a free school to allow their daughters to be educated like their male peers. This led to a life of service, battles, and determination.
Becoming a Doctor
After completing her basic education, Mary Walker became a teacher. She worked in Minetto, New York, while saving money to pay for medical school. Mary attended Syracuse Medical College and graduated as a medical doctor in 1855. Mary Walker married Albert Miller the same year and opened a medical practice together. The practice in Rome, New York, went under because the public did not want to accept a female doctor.
In 1861, war broke out in the United States.
Dr. Mary Walker tried to join the Union Army as a surgeon. However, her gender prevented her from being anything other than a nurse. Dissatisfied with that, Mary volunteered for the Union Army at a temporary hospital in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C. and helped start the Women’s Relief Organization which allowed family members of wounded to visit.
Dr. Walker moved to Virginia in 1862 with the goal of treating wounded soldiers near the front lines.
Finally, in 1863, Mary’s credentials as a surgeon were accepted. She was appointed as a War Department surgeon with a paid position.
In April 1864, Mary was captured by the Confederacy. She was held as a prisoner of war for four months before she and fellow Union doctors participated in a prisoner-of-war swap.
Dr. Mary Walker advocated for women’s suffrage and the ability to wear nontraditional clothing.
While serving, Dr. Walker wore what many called a “Bloomer costume.” This was a set of pants underneath a skirt that was split down the center. The goal of these modifications was to allow her better mobility as a doctor. Eventually, the government gave Walker special permission to wear men’s clothing. But that didn’t prevent her from being arrested in New Orleans for impersonating a man.
Mary Walker believed in women’s suffrage. She attempted to register to vote in 1871 but was denied. While unable to vote, Walker campaigned for a seat in Congress twice. Despite losing, Walker continued to push for the right to vote by testifying at the US House of Representatives for women’s suffrage.
The First of a Kind
President Andrew Johnson awarded Dr. Mary Walker the Medal of Honor in November 1865.
In 1917 Walker’s medal was rescinded because she served as a civilian and was never commissioned as an officer during her time in the Civil War. This was just two years before Walker died.
As was her way, Walker did not heed this barrier. She refused to return the medal, instead wearing it until the day that she died. It would be another sixty years, in 1977, before President Jimmy Carter would restore the Medal of Honor to Walker.
Dr. Mary Walker remains, to this day, the only woman Medal of Honor Recipient.
While Methodist parents raised Dr. Mary Walker, we don’t know her true faith. Walker wrote a book called Hit in 1871, where she discussed her religious beliefs. She claimed that she was “very religiously liberal for the time.”
So why is she included in Women of the Word Wednesday? Dr. Mary Walker’s legacy has had a long-reaching impact. Entire sections of the military are open to women because Dr. Walker dared to go first. According to the DOD, there are 14,906 officer occupations in the medical feild and 26,005 enlisted occupations in the medical feild across the military branches.
Today all of these positions are open to women.
Dr. Mary Walker clearly had a significant impact on military history. Her contributions to the military world are worth remembering, even if she wasn’t a follower of Christ. Dr. Walker’s willingness to be the first, stand up for her principles, and continue fighting past obstacles, blazed a trail that is now the path that thousands of military women walk down every year.
As we strive to honor God in military life, it is important to remember the women that God used to open the doors.
Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for trailblazers. Thank you for Dr. Walker and the tenacity that she showed. Help us learn from her example to stand up for what is right, even in adversity. Amen.
Notes and Resources
- Read this post to learn why we care about Christian women in military history.
- Read all of our Women of the Word Wednesday posts here.
- Meet Dr. Mary Walker: The only female Medal of Honor recipient
- Women’s History- Dr. Mary Walker
- Walker, Mary Edwards – Freethought Trail
- Biography of Dr. Walker – Dr. Mary Edwards Walker Bibliography