A lost figure to history, today we will look at Dr. Mary Walker and the pioneering work in the military, medical, and feminist fields. Though not forgotten to history, as some of our ancestors’ stories are, she is still a relatively unknown woman with a large legacy.
Mary Walker was born November 26, 1832 to a progressive family that believed in equal education and work for their children. The whole-hearted belief in equality permeated Walker’s life and led her to a career as a doctor, commissioned army officer, women’s rights advocate, and writer on issues of dress, education and divorce. A passionate supporter of dress reform, she married her husband in bloomers and spent much of the rest of her life dressed in pants as a personal and political protest against the societal constraints of women’s clothing. After a protracted legal fight, Walker divorced her philandering husband.
[By National Library of Medicine, Images from the History of Medicine, B010947 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
After graduating medical school, and becoming the second woman in the US to become a doctor, Walker started her practice with her then-husband, Dr. Albert Miller. When the Civil War broke out, Dr. Walker offered her services to the Union. During her four year tenure, she helped organize the Women’s Relief Association, became a prisoner of war for four months, sustained a lifelong eye injury, crossed into confederate territory to help civilians, earned a second medical degree, and earned the respect of the men on the battlefield. Though initially refused commission, Dr. Walker became the first female surgeon commissioned in the Army. And on November 11, 1865, President Andrew Johnson signed a bill to present Dr. Walker with the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service.
Dr. Walker did not rest on her laurels in the final years of her life. In 1917, when Jeanette Rankin won her bid for Congress, Dr. Walker ran for Senate. That same year, she offered Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany the use of her land for peace talks as World War I devastated Europe. She collapsed later in 1917 and never recovered. She died in 1919, the a year before the 19th amendment passed. Though never achieving the right to vote, her lifelong fight proved women can stand on equal ground with men, from the classroom to the battlefield.