Mary Walker

Below is the first essay from my upcoming weekly column “Pretty Faces” on Memory of Elephants (launching at the end of the month). The column highlights one amazing American woman’s story each week, and is designed to educate, inspire and be read in less than 15 minutes. Enjoy **

Mary Walker knew how to work; her parents made sure of that. They were farmers in the rural town in upstate New York where Mary was born in the fall of 1832.

It was a time of strict gender roles, of Victorian fainting couches, of petticoats and whale-bone corsets and jewelry fashioned from human hair and teeth. It was a time when women were revered for their modesty and femininity; a time when women were encouraged to be little more than pretty faces and agreeable dispositions atop blooms of crinoline and lace. But Mary Walker’s parents had no time for such profligacy. They had a family to feed. They had a farm to run. They had seven children, so Mary, their youngest charge, learned how to work.

In an act that would prove to be the keystone in the architecture of Mary’s life, her parents skirted the style of the times and let their daughter wear pants instead of hoop skirts, boots instead of slippers and shirts instead of corsets. The farm, after all, was no place for the screaming impracticality of 19th century women’s clothing.

Young Mary Walker

So, at her father’s side, in her pants and her boots, Mary Walker learned how to work. It was hard labor, difficult for a grown man, exceptionally grueling for a young child, but Mary did it. Day after day, she did it.

As those days working on her family’s farm turned into months and then years, the world around Mary began to change. Soon upstate New York found itself in a period of possibility and progressive thoughts, of industry, idealism and growth.

In the summer of Mary’s sixteenth year, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth and other forward-thinking women who believed in the then-radical notion that women deserved the same ownership over their lives, their liberties and their pursuits as men, congregated in Seneca Falls, a town less than 50 miles south of the Walker’s farm. The ideas of these free-thinking women, voiced in a little chapel in rural New York, provided the foundation for what would later be known as the feminist movement.

On the day of the congregation, a teenage Mary Walker took what might have been her first day off work and rode to Seneca Falls. There she heard speeches, broke bread, and stood her ground while the groundwork of life’s expectation shifted beneath her feet. She, a girl in boy’s clothing, heard what these progressive women said, and after a decade of planting seeds in her family’s farm, a seed was planted in her. If she and her sisters could till fields and bail hay along side her brother and her father, who was to say they couldn’t work their way into other male-dominated fields?

With this freshly minted idea in her brain, Mary Walker got to work.

In 1855 Mary graduated with honors from Syracuse Medical College. She was the only woman in her class. But Mary’s work was just beginning. Remember, the majority of people did not share Mary’s belief that women could work just as well as men, so a newly licensed Mary found it nearly impossible to get work as a doctor. Mary was laughed out of almost every doctor’s office and hospital from New York to Ohio. But she paid these rejections no mind, because she had a job to do and because, as you will see, she was a woman who never gave up.

Six years later, the unthinkable happened, diametrically oppositional views in the North and South came to a head and the nation imploded in civil war. Six months after the first blood was spilled, Mary, now a surgeon, moved to Washington, D.C. where soldiers were hurt and dying. Mary knew how to help them, she wanted to save their lives and she wanted to work.

She wandered through the nation’s war torn capital, looking for work, but was only offered nursing jobs, because she was a woman, and women were nurses, not doctors. When it became clear she could not find solvency as a doctor, Mary worked anyway, for free, as a field surgeon in some of the bloodiest battles in the whole of the war. Dressed, as always, in men’s clothing, she traveled from battle to battle offering her knowledge and skill to the overwhelmed male surgeons, who were just desperate enough to oblige. When their work was finished, she would ask her male co-workers for a recommendation for official appointment from the Army, which came with a salary and a rank and recognition. Countless weeks spent saving countless lives passed her by, but Mary’s appointment never came.

For three years Mary walked into the storms of war where she worked along side men and together they saved the lives of other men, and slowly Mary’s presence became tolerated, then accepted, and finally she got her appointment and became the first female surgeon in the Union Army. And in 1864 when she was captured and held as a prisoner of war by the Confederate Army, the same men who had denied her abilities as a surgeon, had told her to put on a nurse’s dress, who had refused to hire her in an official capacity for so many years were the ones who negotiated her eventual release.

When the war ended, the country was different: shell-shocked by the horror it had endured, our nation leaned on traditional values to mend its bleeding heart, and trusted the binary comforts of gender roles while rebuilding the American Experience. There was no work for a female doctor. Even if that female doctor was Mary Walker, who in 1865 became the first woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

Even though she couldn’t be a doctor any more, Mary pinned her medal to her shirt and kept moving forward.

She wore that medal every day. She wore it when she lectured on women’s rights and dress reform. She wore it when she worked in the Central Woman’s Suffrage Bureau in Washington, D.C., fighting, as always to advance the lives of American Women. She was wearing it each time she was arrested for dressing in men’s clothes in public. And she was wearing it in 1917 when she received a letter from the United States Army informing her of a policy change that meant she was no longer an eligible recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Mary knew she was a war hero, she knew she had saved countless lives, and helped her fellow surgeons save countless others. She knew she was the only field doctor brave enough to cross enemy lines to help the injured. She knew she was the first female surgeon in the Army and she knew that meant something to the young girls and women she worked to educate and inspire every day. So when a second letter came demanding Mary immediately return her medal to the federal government, she refused.

Then Mary Walker got back to work.

Mary Walker 1919 — Wearing Medal of Honor