The medical field in the 19th century was masculine, meaning that women were often excluded from positions outside of the domain of nursing. Mary Edwards Walker, a progressive woman from New York, managed to kick down barriers throughout her lifetime, and she did so wearing bloomer suits. She was an abolitionist, doctor, suspected spy, and woman’s rights advocate. Dr. Mary Walker would become the only woman ever to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor for her heroic efforts saving the lives of soldiers and civilians during the Civil War. Her story is inspiring because it illustrates what can be achieved when one simply will not take no for an answer.

Progressive Parents:

Mary Walker was born in Oswego, New York in 1832. Her mother and father were abolitionists and disregarded many gender norms when it came to raising up their children. Mary was allowed to wear pants and was encouraged to stay in school. She worked as a teacher, a primarily female position, in order to save up enough money for medical school. In 1855 she graduated from Syracuse medical college with her degree, making her the second female to ever graduate with a medical degree from that school (The first to graduate was Elizabeth Blackwell) (Alexander). That same year, she married Albert Miller and the couple started a medical practice in Rome, NY. I want to note here that Mary kept her last name and even wore pants underneath her wedding dress.Their marriage did not last but a few years and Dr. Walker found her practice on thin ice due to the fact that few people trusted a female physician.

“I don’t wear men’s clothes, I wear my own clothes.”

Photo of young May Walker. Notice the feminine and masculine details in her outfit. Image credit: National Museum of American History.

The War Effort:

In 1861, Dr. Mary Walker wished to join the Union war effort but was denied serving as a medical officer (Alexander). Professional surgeons were needed, yet she was denied the position because she was a woman. Her only option at the time was to serve in a non-payment volunteer nursing position. In 1862 she moved to Virginia and served soldiers by the front lines. By 1863, her request was accepted and she became  the first female U.S. Army surgeon (Alexander). Trouble found her in 1864 when she was captured by Confederate troops while tending to the wounded across battle lines. She was held prisoner for four months at Castle Thunder Prison near Richmond under suspicion of spy activity (National Park Service). In August, 1864 she was released in a soldier exchange and served as an assistant surgeon for the Ohio 52nd infantry one month later (Alexander). 


After the war ended, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Honor, which she wore for the rest of her life. She opened her home to individuals who felt ostracized by society and advocated for women’s rights. In 1917 the medal was revoked because of a reappraisal to eligibility, but she refused to give it back. The award was restored in 1977 (Changing the Faces of Medicine). She passed away in her home in 1919 and is buried in New York.

“I am the original new woman.”

Photo of Mary Walker later in life. She was known to always wear her medal of honor and often wore a top hat. Image credit: National Park Service.

Until Next Time



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