Mary Edwards Walker, MD

(1832–1919) The only woman ever awarded the Medal of Honor—the US military's highest decoration—was a gender-queer Civil War surgeon named Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. Mary was a suffragist, a veteran and POW, and a talented doctor who challenged convention in every way.

Turned down in her attempts to join the Union army, Mary volunteered at first. She finally got a contract, and proved able and unflappable—but still couldn't get a formal commission. The American Medical Association tried hard to block her, both with outright sexism and more veiled critique of her training in "eclectic" or what today we'd call alternative & homeopathic medicine. In the 1850s traditional medical schools wouldn't admit women, so the distinction between credentialing & sexism was a thin line.

Dr. Mary was a committed suffragist who used her public profile to advance the cause. She is the first woman known to try and vote in New York, in her hometown of Oswego. It was 1867, early in what became known as the New Departure, a strategy of voting as civil disobedience. She campaigned for dress reform for decades, before and after the war and as a longtime officer of the Dress Reform Association. She was very close to Belva Lockwood, landmark lawyer and presidential candidate, and they worked together for suffrage through the 1870s.

Dr. Mary's contributions to the movement were all but erased from the historical record by Stanton and Anthony, who were threatened by her and uncomfortable with her gender-bending. She was arrested repeatedly for her clothing, and charged with disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace in both New York City and Baltimore. At that point she was still wearing long hair and a mid-calf dress over pants. By the 1870s, Walker cut her hair short and wore unambiguously male clothing for the rest of her life. She sat for photos and had portraits painted in those years—in top hat & dinner jacket, Dr. Mary wanted to be seen clearly for who she was.

There are two children's books about Dr. Walker: Mary Walker Wears the Pants and Mary Wears What She Wants. But the most fitting tribute is Washington DC's Whitman-Walker Clinic, named for Walt Whitman and Mary Walker. The clinic has been serving the health and well-being of LGBTQ in Washington for more than 40 years. (Biographical info from Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical by Sharon Harris.) Bio by Rachel B. Tiven.

Rural Cemetery

242 Cemetery Road, Oswego, NY 13126

Oswego County

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This program was funded in part by Humanities New York with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this website do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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