“I am the original new woman…Why, before Lucy Stone, Mrs. Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were—before they were, I am. In the early ’40′s, when they began their work in dress reform, I was already wearing pants…I have made it possible for the bicycle girl to wear the abbreviated skirt, and I have prepared the way for the girl in knickerbockers.” – Dr. Mary Edwards Walker
We don’t often associate clothing with suffrage, but our attire has always been reflective of our status. In the mid-nineteenth century, clothing became a central issue in the struggle for women’s rights as women attempted to free themselves of tight corsets and long heavy skirts. Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was one such woman. Refusing to be bound by societal standards, Dr. Walker wore a bloomer dress (a controversial combination of trousers and a dress) until the late 1870s, when she began dressing in men’s clothes. She was arrested for impersonating a man several times – a fact of which she was extremely proud.
Born in Oswego, New York, Mary Walker worked on her family farm as a child, and in her teenage years, Mary taught at the local school in order to pay for her medical school tuition. Dr. Walker was the only woman in her class at the Syracuse Medical College when she graduated in 1855 at the age of 21.
At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Dr. Walker volunteered with the Union Army as a civilian. She was accepted as a nurse, as the Army had no female surgeons. Undeterred, Dr. Walker worked as an unpaid field surgeon near the Union front lines. Finally in 1863, she was appointed a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)” – becoming the first-ever female surgeon employed by the U.S. Army Surgeon.
During this time, it is believed that she also served as a Union spy, as she continually crossed Confederate lines to treat civilians. She was arrested in 1864 by Confederate troops and imprisoned as a spy in Richmond. Dr. Walker was exchanged four months later, with two dozen other Union doctors, for 17 Confederate surgeons.
After the war, Mary Edwards Walker, MD was awarded a Medal of Honor, the United States military’s highest decoration for bravery. She is the only woman to receive the medal and one of only eight civilians to receive it. In 1917 her Congressional Medal was rescinded when Congress revised the Medal of Honor standards to include only “actual combat with an enemy.” Dr. Walker refused to give back her Medal of Honor, wearing it every day until her death two years later in 1919. A relative told the New York Times: “Dr. Mary lost the medal simply because she was a hundred years ahead of her time and no one could stomach it.” An Army board reinstated Walker’s medal posthumously in 1977, citing her “distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex.”