13 September 2010

Women Did It Better: Dr. Mary Walker

By Lorelie Brown

The Congressional Medal of Honor has been on my mind lately because of SSG Salvatore Giunta. He's the very first person to be awarded the Medal of Honor for participation in Operation Enduring Freedom OR Iraqi Freedom. My husband served with him at one point--though not at the time of the actions that have earned him the MoH--and he's a great guy. So it's only right that he's earned the United State's top honor for military personnel.

It was kind of a lucky coincidence that I'd already signed up to chat about Dr. Mary Walker--the first and only woman to have ever been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Mary Walker was born in 1832 and she forged her own path fairly quickly. Her parents had a farm in upstate New York and she frequently did her field work wearing men's clothes. Today that doesn't seem like such a big deal. Who'd want to plow a field wearing a skirt and petticoats, seriously? Um, everyone but her. She taught at the local school for a while, but only until she could gather up the funds to attend Syracuse Medical College.

She graduated in 1855. She was the only woman in her class. (Really, there's a lot of "only" and "first" in Dr. Walker's story.) A year later she married a fellow student, Albert Miller, while wearing male dress. She didn't take his name either. They tried to start up a local practice but people were still wary of being treated by female doctors, so it didn't do well. At all. The practice died.

When the Civil War began, Dr. Walker tried to volunteer as a surgeon, but they wouldn't have her. Can you believe it? Turning down a doctor just because she was a woman? But she ended up having to volunteer her services as a nurse. Despite being called a nurse she was at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. At the battles of Fredericksburg and Chickamauga she served as a volunteer--as in unpaid, unacknowledged--assistant field surgeon.

Finally in 1863 the Army of the Cumberland (in Ohio) awarded her a position as Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian). Duh. Guess they finally pulled their heads out of their bums. She had a modified officer's uniform made for herself to commemorate the occasion. Not long afterward she was made an assistant surgeon for the 52nd Ohio Infantry. She was still technically a civilian and she regularly went back and forth across the battle lines to treat anyone she could.

She was captured on April 10, 1864, by Confederate troops. They even charged her with spying. She spent four months in a Confederate prison near Richmond, Virginia before being released in an organized prisoner exchange. (Honestly, this is the part of her story that fascinates me the most. Was she the only female in that prison? What must that have been like? She apparently advocated for a more balanced diet, including grains and fruit, and the Confederate guards agreed.)

Dr. Walker kept working for the 52nd Infantry for a while, but after a while she moved on to first a prison and then an orphanage in Tennessee. In June of 1865, she left the Army and November she received the Medal of Honor from President Andrew Johnson.

But Dr. Walker didn't stop there. She spent the rest of her life advocating for women's rights, along with the better known Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Eventually she was pushed off to the side because her views were rather extreme; she thought women were already granted the right to vote by the Constitution and only legislation to ensure their rights were lacking. She also regularly dressed in men's style top coats and trousers, all the way to the hat and tie.

There's a down side to her story. In 1911, a reorganizing of the rules pertaining to the Medal of Honor declared her MoH invalid. A military tribunal decided that only those who'd received it due to actual combat experience were entitled to wear it. Dr. Walker was ordered to return the ribbon. She refused. I picture her as a crotchety old lady, telling the Army's representatives to stick their revocation up their bum. She wore it every day until her death on February 21, 1919.

President Jimmy Carter reinstated her medal in 1977.