March 30th: Mary Edwards Walker

Portrait

Mary Edwards Walker grew up during the 1830s in a pretty unconventional household.  Her parents did not believe in enforcing gender roles, so she and her other sisters would share the work with the men on the farm, and her brother shared domestic tasks equally with his sisters.  Additionally, Walker’s parents wanted their daughters to be well educated.  Because equal educational opportunities weren’t available to women in the late 1830s, Walker’s parents founded their own school to ensure that Walker and her sisters got the education they wanted for them.  Throughout her childhood Walker was encouraged to defy gender roles, which led her to become extremely interested in studying medicine.  She started to work as a teacher in order to pay her way through medical school where she graduated with honors, and as the only woman in her class.  At the beginning of the Civil War, Walker signed up to be a surgeon but she was only permitted to work as a nurse.  Eventually, she was able to start working, unpaid, as a surgeon in the field, the first woman to do so in the Union Army.  Walker also risked her life during the war.  She crossed over battle lines multiple times to treat both Union and Confederate soldiers, as well as civilians.  On April 10th, 1864, as she was finishing helping a confederate surgeon perform an amputation, she was captured and taken as a confederate prisoner.  She was released four months later as part of a prisoner exchange.  In 1865 Walker was given the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration given to service members, by Andrew Johnson for her work as a doctor during the Civil War.  She was the first and only woman to ever receive the medal to date.  The medal was taken away from her in 1979 when the board deleted over 900 names from the list but Walker refused to return the medal, and wore it until her death.  The medal was later re-awarded to her after she died by President Jimmy Carter.  After the Civil War ended, Walker became an activist for women’s rights, specifically their right to wear whatever type of clothing they wanted.  Walker found women’s clothing impractical and even unhealthy so she refused to wear them, opting for men’s clothing instead.  She was actually arrested multiple times for wearing men’s clothing.  She attempted to register to vote in 1871 but was of course turned away since women had not gained the right to yet.  Mary Walker died in February of 1919.  There is an United States Army Reserve center named after her in Michigan, and The Mary E. Walker House in Pennsylvania which helps homeless female veterans.

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