Mary Edwards Walker, M.D., physician and Civil War field surgeon, was the first woman to receive the Medal of Honor.
Much ahead of her time, Dr. Walker, in 1855, was one of the first women in the United States to earn a medical degree. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Dr. Walker volunteered to work on the Civil War battlefields caring for the wounded. Denied a commission as a medical officer because she was a woman, she volunteered anyway and eventually was appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry. Captured by the Confederates in 1864, she was exchanged only after she spent four months in a Richmond, Virginia prison.
Dr. Walker lived a controversial life. She lectured throughout the United States and abroad on women’s rights, dress reform, health and temperance issues, and sexual and political equality. She tried to vote, but was turned away. She rejected corsets and hoop-skirted dresses for the more practical pantsuits (trousers, jackets, top hats) and found herself arrested in New York City for impersonating a man. She spoke against imperialism, the Spanish-American War, and America’s acquisition of colonies abroad. She worked for equal rights in all facets of life, from love and marriage to the workplace. She urged the reform of divorce laws that placed women in deplorable situations. She advocated women retaining their own surnames. Much to the horror of her contemporaries, she foresaw that a time would come when men and women would keep their own names when they married and that the children of these alliances would choose the name they preferred. She also authored two books devoted to her views on feminism.
She struggled on the brink of poverty as she lost work because of her refusal to bow to the will of others or to follow standard operating procedures. She was ridiculed for many of her ideas and assertive manner. Her Medal of Honor was revoked. Today, society recognizes her achievements and her insistence that women be treated with the same respect as men. And in 1977, the Army Board, admitting that Dr. Walker had been a victim of sex discrimination, restored the Medal of Honor to her, citing her for “distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country.”