The Casual Silencing of Women

In 1863, Dr. Mary Walker, who donated her medical expertise to the US army during the Civil War since it would not commission her because she was a woman, wrote in an article for the women’s rights journal, The Sibyl:

“Not until this ‘cruel war’ has ceased, and peace shall again be ours, and a dozen histories be written containing all the facts and events that each historian shall have collected, and the noble women from all be compiled, not, I say, until then shall the world know how much women have done.”

MEW 1864 Drexel(Drexel University, College of Medicine, Archives and Special Collections)

Mary Walker understood the importance of history, and she understood the difficulties women faced in getting their voices heard. She encountered gender discrimination her entire life because of her choice in fashion, her decision to become a doctor, and her dedication to the women’s suffrage movement. If the world did not know how much women did during the Civil War and acknowledge their contributions, nothing would change, women would never achieve equality.

I thought about Dr. Walker this morning as I came across a link to a Washington Post article in my Twitter feed. Joe Heim reported about a photo display in the National Archives meant to honor the centennial of women’s suffrage. One picture, taken at the 2017 Women’s March by Getty photographer Mario Tama, had been altered, blurring out the name of the current POTUS and the words vagina and pussy.

The voices of the women involved in that protest had been erased, their concerns–and their anger–blotted out.

Why? Heim quoted from an email from the spokesperson for the National Archives, Miriam Kleiman: “As a non-partisan, non-political federal agency, we blurred references to the President’s name on some posters, so as not to engage in current political controversy.” Vagina and pussy received the same treatment out of concerns that the words could be viewed as “inappropriate” for students and other young people visiting the Archives.

Historians were quick to level criticism, rejecting Kleiman’s distinction that “In this case, the image is part of a promotional display, not an artifact.” Purdue University’s Wendy Kline pointed out, “Doctoring a commemorative photograph buys right into the notion that it’s okay to silence women’s voice and actions.”

In 2020, one hundred years after women got the right to vote–which was supposed to reinforce their equality of citizenship–women still have to fight against this erasure.

Karin Wulf, from the College of William and Mary, made another important observation. “The Archives has always been self-conscious about its responsibility to educate about source material, and in this case they could have said, or should have said, ‘We edited this image in the following way for the following reasons.’ ” She also posted an insightful Twitter thread on the matter.

To its credit, the National Archives took these concerns and criticisms seriously. In a matter of hours, it admitted, “We made a mistake,” and apologized.

Image(John Valceanu photo)

It is a good apology, timely and sincere. The image was taken down. The Archives will review its policies.

Leaving that image in place would have validated the notion that it is okay to blur or leave out things that we disagree with or make us uncomfortable. And that is not the way to preserve history. (It is surprising that anyone at the National Archives, which the United States entrusts with its historical documents, thought this was okay. It knows it has to do better.)

And once again, women are confronted with how casually their voices can be erased from the historical record.

Dr. Mary Walker would be appalled, but not surprised.




Happy Birthday to Dr. Mary Walker

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only female recipient of the Medal of Honor, was born on November 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was born in the town of Oswego in 1832. She served as a surgeon in the Civil War before being captured crossing enemy lines to treat wounded civilians. She was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for her valor; the only woman in history to receive the distinction. She devoted her life to social causes, becoming a prominent writer and lecturer and advocating for the abolition of slavery as well as promoting women's suffrage and dress reform. Image courtesy of the Matthew Brady Collection of Civil War Photographs in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.(National Archives)

She grew up believing in abolition and women’s rights. During a time when most medical schools refused to admit women, Mary Walker found one that did–the Syracuse Medical College–and graduated in 1855.

In 1861, not long after the start of the Civil War, Dr. Walker shuttered her private practice in Rome, New York, and traveled to Washington, D.C., where she requested a commission as an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army. Denied because of her gender, Walker volunteered, working at hospitals in the capital city as well as in the field. In 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor for her services as a physician during the war.

Mary Walker was a controversial figure. Not only had she chosen a “man’s profession,” she also adopted reform dress. Commonly known as the Bloomer costume, Dr. Walker wore trousers under a shortened skirt. She was arrested several times for wearing “men’s clothing” in public yet she never gave up her bloomers. It was a woman’s right, she believed, to wear what she wanted and to do the kind of work she wanted.

A prolific writer and public speaker, Dr. Mary Walker campaigned for women’s voting rights after the Civil War. She died in 1919, the year before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

The details of her extraordinary life can be found in my forthcoming book, Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War, available for preorder now.



Before There Was a Veterans Day

President Woodrow Wilson created the first Armistice Day in 1919 to mark the anniversary of the end of World War I, November 11, 1918. During the 1920s, successive presidents made annual proclamations for observing November 11 with appropriate ceremonies. Armistice Day became a legal holiday in 1938, designed to honor veterans and the cause of world peace.


The peace did not last. After World War II ended in 1945, a movement started for a designated remembrance of all veterans. Congress passed legislation in 1954 substituting Veterans Days for Armistice Day. Beginning in 1971, because of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, official celebrations of Veterans Day were moved to the fourth Monday in October.

Before the two world wars, the United States had been involved in its own Civil War. A year after that conflict ended in 1865, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) formed to provide fellowship and support for Union veterans. The GAR also organized the earliest Memorial Day celebrations and supported federal pensions for veterans.

The GAR extended membership to at least two women: a vivandiere from Rhode Island named Kady Brownell and Sara Emma Edmonds, who dressed like a man to join the 2nd Michigan Infantry.

Though no evidence exists that she was a member, Dr. Mary Walker attended many GAR events, including one in Steubenville, Ohio in 1879. Her employment as a contract surgeon with the 52nd Ohio was as close to military service that she could get during the Civil War. After the war, Dr. Walker frequently received letters from men she had treated or met. If they were in need of assistance, she always tried to help.

About 6200 veterans marched in a parade in Steubenville on August 28, 1879. Twenty-five thousand people crowded into the city to take part in the festivities. Many belonged to area GAR posts. Dr. Walker sat on the bandstand platform, surrounded by politicians and generals, to listen to speeches. Local newspapers referred to her as a “veteran”–with the word carefully bracketed by quotation marks. She felt honored.


As Civil War veterans aged and died, membership in the GAR dwindled. It dissolved in 1956, after the death of its last member.





The Writing Life

As a writer, I spend lots of time researching, writing, and telling people that I’m researching and writing.

c20da-grace2ba692(author Grace Metalious, not me)

After a very long time, usually years, I have something to show for it in the form of a book. This time, though, I did not take a long time. I was skeptical that I could research and write quickly, but I did. I’m retired. I’m not in the classroom or grading papers nine months out of the year. So what else am I going to do?

Coming in June 2020 is Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War. (Just click on the link if you want to preorder.) Beginning this November with the anniversary of Walker’s birth, I’ll be posting snippets of her life and times.



Dr. Mary Walker Reads the Declaration of Independence

July 4, 1865 was a bittersweet holiday for many Americans. The long Civil War that tore the country apart had ended about two months earlier. The Union survived, slavery ended. But President Abraham Lincoln, who helped secure those two ends, was dead from an assassin’s bullet.

Image result for july 4, 1865(“Peace-Fourth of July 1865, Harper’s Weekly)

Mary Walker, a 32-year-old physician, was at loose ends. With the war over, her last appointment as a contract surgeon with the U.S. army, at the Refugee Home in Clarksville, Tennessee, had drawn to a close. She received orders to return to Washington, D.C., where her employment was terminated on June 15. Walker decided to travel for awhile, and she made Richmond, Virginia–until recently the capital of the Confederacy–her first stop.

Image result for july 4, 1865 richmond, va(NARA)

The woman doctor was well known in Richmond. In 1864, she had been a prisoner of war in Castle Thunder, and now she walked its halls as a free woman. The Richmond Bulletin reported Mary Walker’s presence on the city streets, beginning with a description of her outfit: “a blue coat with military buttons, and a very long skirt, a pair of nicely-fitting blue pants…and gaiters, which fitted so as to display a pretty foot.” The doctor attracted a lot of attention as she walked along Broad Street past the Powhatan Hotel. A small group of African American children followed her. Men and boys “stopped along the sidewalk to comment upon the novel appearance of a lady in uniform.” A provost guard challenged Dr. Walker’s right to wear that apparel in public. She told him to give the provost marshal her regards, that she would call on him later, and resumed her stroll. Army Center of Military History)

On July 4, Mary Walker participated in Richmond’s Independence Day celebration. The anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator reported on the subdued crowd, “not enthusiastic, except, perhaps, among a portion of the Union soldiers stationed there, and at the pic-nics of the freed people.” The formal program began with a prayer from the Reverend George S. Stockwell of the First African Baptist Church. Dr. Walker, “late surgeon in the army,” dressed in her blue uniform, read the Declaration of Independence from the steps of the state capital building. It was probably the last time she appeared in public in her uniform, though she never stopped wearing her version of reform (“Bloomer”) dress. Mary Walker spent the rest of her life fighting for women’s rights to equal employment, equal education, and equal suffrage.