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.



Looking Backward by Laura E. Foster

Laura Foster Looking Backward 1912(Library of Congress)

In 1912, Life magazine published this anti-suffrage illustration by Laura E. Foster. A well-known artist and illustrator, Foster was born in 1871 in San Francisco, where she first began doing newspaper drawings. After the 1906 earthquake, she moved to New York City, where her career continued to grow and thrive, and where she married Donald Monroe, a stockbroker about eleven years her senior.

This drawing is a stark reminder that the suffrage movement was not a straightforward march toward progress. It had begun in the late 1840s, and in 1912, when Life published Foster’s illustration, it was on the cusp of an infusion of radicalism by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. This drawing attempted to convince women that love and marriage were incompatible with a career and “professional triumph.” The higher a woman climbed toward fame, the more riddled she would become with loneliness and anxiety. And suffrage was right near the top, contributing to those negative attributes.

Women’s suffrage was written into the Constitution with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the same year Laura Foster died. Nearly one hundred years later, many women will still find the message of her illustration familiar.


Sending the President a Perpetual Delegation

On January 10, 1917, suffragist and political strategist Alice Paul sent a group of women from the National Woman’s Party (NWP) to the White House. Tired of fruitless discussions with President Wilson on the topic of votes for women (Wilson came up with a variety of reasons for not supporting a constitutional amendment), Paul decided to keep the message in the public eye: “If a creditor stands before a man’s house all day long, demanding payment of his bill, the man must either remove the creditor or pay the bill.”

Image result for silent sentinels

Inez Haynes Gillmore described that first delegation as consisting of a dozen women. Four carried lettered banners, eight carried ones made of the NWP’s colors of purple, white, and gold. Six women stationed themselves at the east gate of the White House, six at the west. The text of the banners contained the messages depicted above:

“Mr. President What Will You Do For Woman Suffrage”

“Mr. President How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty”

The questions were simple and direct, striking at the core of American democracy. The president tried to ignore the women, hoping they would give up and go away. When they didn’t, D.C. police arrested them on a variety of nuisance charges. Most women, including Alice Paul, chose jail over bail.

Image result for national woman's party silent sentinels Alice Paul

The perpetual delegation kept vigil for a year and a half, braving all kinds of weather and harassment from onlookers. Because of the perseverance of the NWP and other suffragists, American women achieved the right to vote in 1920.

For more on Alice Paul, see this fine biography: