We would be remiss in our efforts to celebrate American history if we were to forget the contributions of one of the only women in American history to receive the Medal of Honor. Mary Walker Edwards is a hero in our book for her contributions to the Civil War, to America, and to its prosperity. Mary was a hero among heroes; she was a Doctor, Surgeon, Abolitionist, and staunch advocate for the rights of women.
Her Younger Years
Walker was born on November 26th, 1832, in the city of Oswego in upstate New York. The daughter of abolitionists and free thinkers, she was encouraged from a young age to care about the rights of all people. Committing herself very early on to gender equality and the rights of women, she was known for wearing pants instead of skirts and dresses, even as a little girl.
Education was very important to both Mary and her family. After attending the first free school in Oswego, NY (started by her very own parents), Mary graduated from Falley Seminary (also in NY) and then later, Syracuse Medical School where she earned her medical degree in 1855. She was the second woman to ever graduate from the school. Even as a student, Mary was committed to service and standing up for the rights of others.
Her service to our country and the Medical Profession
After graduating from medical school, Walker married and started a medical practice with her husband. However, she immediately suffered continued injustice and discrimination because she was a woman. She wanted to join the Civil War effort as a surgeon but was refused as a female. Instead of accepting this discrimination, she joined the effort as an unpaid volunteer surgeon at the U.S. Patent Office Hospital in Washington. Still, because the Army did not allow female surgeons, she was only allowed to practice as a nurse.
In the face of insurmountable discrimination, Walker was still able to accomplish the following:
- She founded the Woman’s Relief Organization while working at the hospital, helping families to care for their wounded loved ones.
- She treated the wounded near the war’s frontlines in Virginia.
- In 1863, she became the first female U.S. Army surgeon as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon” in Ohio.
- Was imprisoned for wearing men’s clothing, was released, and went on to become Assistant Surgeon of the Ohio 52nd Infantry.
- Was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson.
An Advocate for Women’s Rights
Walker was not only deeply committed to her work in the Army but was an abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights as well. She was arrested numerous times for wearing “men’s clothing,” supported efforts for dress reform, and fought for suffrage and the right to vote in 1871. She was denied this right and responded by campaigning for the U.S. Senate in 1881. She also ran as a Democratic candidate for Congress in 1890. Losing both times, Walker still had the privilege of giving testimony in front of the U.S. House of Representatives regarding suffrage and women’s rights.
In 1916, the validity of Walker’s Medal of Honor was taken away, due to contested eligibility. This did not, however, stop her from wearing it proudly up until her death in 1919. Fortunately, her legacy continued to live on decades later when President Jimmy Carter honored Walker’s name by legally restoring her much-deserved Medal of Honor.
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