Dr. Mary Edwards Walker refused to relinquish her Congressional Medal of Honor when told she had to return it; she wore it until the day she died. The Medal of Honor was tangible evidence of her contribution during the Civil War. Walker was one of a few women to serve as a physician in the war; most women who were trained physicians served as nurses, but Walker refused to be classified as a nurse. However, Walker’s medical degree is neither the most unusual thing about her nor is it the most infamous. She was a suffragist who worked alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott in the struggle for women’s rights. She was a writer and a lecturer. In her own words she was the “‘most prominent woman in the United States Army’.” She was a “woman of exceptional determination and perseverance” whose actions and beliefs put her at odds with the Victorian ideal of womanhood.
Mary Edwards Walker was born to Alvah and Vesta Walker 26 November 1832. Her sisters, Aurora Borealis; Vesta; and Luna, were named after constellations, but Mary Walker was named for an aunt. Many of Walker’s ideas and beliefs that she lived by can be traced back to her childhood on her parents’ farm in Oswego Town, New York. The Walker parents did not allow their children to sit idly by while they worked the farm; Alvah Walker put his daughters to work along with his son and Walker and her sisters were expected to perform the same tasks.
Alvah Walker was something of an amateur doctor; he never went to school, but he read several medical texts and was described as a “country doctor.” Due to his medical hobby Alvah Walker had specific ideas about personal health and he believed most women’s clothing of the early nineteenth-century was detrimental to their health and as such he forbade his daughters to wear corsets or other tight fitting clothes. On her parents’ farm Mary Walker’s father made her aware of the belief that women’s dress needed to be reformed and it shaped the rest of her life.
Her father’s interest in medicine influenced Walker and she first dreamed of being a doctor when she read the many medical texts he owned. Due to the practices of the nineteenth-century, most medical schools did not allow Mary Walker or other women to study medicine. However, in 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first women to receive a medical degree in the United States when she graduated from Geneva Medical College in Geneva, New York. Prior to her graduation from Geneva Medical College Elizabeth Blackwell applied to several medical schools, but they rejected her until she was admitted to Geneva Medical College.
Blackwell’s graduation set a precedent for women in the United States who wanted to study medicine, but it was several years before more medical schools in the United States accepted women applicants. Geneva Medical College refused to accept women after Elizabeth Blackwell graduated and by 1850 only one medical school open just to women existed. Despite Blackwell’s struggle for a medical degree and her subsequent difficulties maintaining a practice in the United States Mary Walker decided to follow her example.
The orthodox medical profession in 1840s and 1850s America barred women from practice because of the belief that women were unsuited for the work of a physician. Women had neither the intelligence nor the strength to be a physician and nineteenth-century society expected women to be “subservient to men.” Mary Walker’s parents did not subscribe to this particular Victorian belief and they supported her in her quest to become a doctor. However, Mary Walker’s parents were not wealthy and could not afford to send her to medical school if she was accepted. To pay for medical school she taught school in Minetto, New York and saved her money until the Syracuse Medical College accepted her in 1853 shortly after her twenty-first birthday.
Syracuse Medical College was one of several Eclectic medical schools in the United States at this time and succeeded Central Medical College which opened in Syracuse, New York in 1849. Established in 1847, the American Medical Association followed Benjamin Rush’s theory of medicine and they considered eclectic medical schools “‘non-regular’.”
The AMA believed in the “dramatic intervention” form of medicine and practiced bloodletting and other drastic treatments.
Practices deemed non-regular by the AMA included homeopathy, hydropathy, Thomasonianism, and eclecticism which was a combination of the other three. The eclectic rejection of orthodoxy was not confined to the medical profession but also included a rejection of the idea that women could not be physicians. This schism in the medical profession and the opening of Syracuse Medical College in 1851 provided Mary Walker with the opportunity she needed to realize her goal of becoming a physician.
Mary Walker was the only woman accepted to Syracuse Medical College in 1853 where her classes included anatomy, surgery, medical pathology, obstetrics, women’s diseases, physiology, materia medica, therapeutics, pharmacy, chemistry, and medical jurisprudence. Although her acceptance allowed her to study medicine it was also the start of a battle for her acceptance as a legitimate physician which she fought the rest of her life. Prejudice against women physicians did not stop Walker from opening a medical practice in Columbus, Ohio upon her graduation in 1855. However, due to the prejudices she faced, her practice never succeeded and Walker went to Rome, New York to join the practice of a fellow graduate. Mary Walker encountered criticism because of her gender and because of her eclectic medical training, but the harshest criticism she faced was due to her style of dress.
Mary Walker did not abandon the belief ingrained in her from childhood that women’s clothing was unhealthy; she continued to experiment with her clothes and adapted the bloomer style to her purposes. Her most common attire was the bloomer pants which she wore under a shortened skirt or “knee length tunic.” In 1855 she had not “abandoned all feminine touches” but her style of dress became more masculine as she got older. For Walker women’s dress reform was the most important issue of the women’s rights movement, a movement she was first exposed to on her parents’ farm in Oswego, New York.
When Walker was sixteen Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the first women’s rights convention in nearby Seneca Falls, New York and although she did not attend the convention she read newspaper reports of it daily. The women at the Seneca Falls convention adopted a Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions patterned after the Declaration of Independence. One hundred and seven people signed the Declaration of Sentiments which declared that women and men were equal and as such women deserved the same rights as men. Years later Walker worked for dress reform and suffrage with several of the women who attended the convention including Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone.
Mary Walker was never in complete harmony with the leaders of the women’s rights movement because of her personal beliefs and actions. She did not agree with Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s avowal that women did not want to dress as men because for Mary Walker dress reform was the most important issue. However, Walker did not adopt a reform style of dress because she wanted to pass as male, unlike some women during the Civil War, but because she believed traditional female attire was detrimental to their health. Walker believed the weight of women’s clothing was an “unbearable burden” and that the length of the skirts was unsanitary due to the dirt they collected. She also believed that the long skirts and heavy material affected a woman’s mental health and to free a woman from such clothing would benefit her mentally. Mary Walker’s devotion to dress reform as well as her profession represented a threat to the conventions of the period because pants and medicine traditionally belonged to men.
Walker did not eschew all Victorian conventionalities as demonstrated by her marriage to Dr. Albert Miller in 1855. However, Mary Walker and Albert Miller’s wedding ceremony was a non-conventional affair. The bride did not wear a white wedding dress, unwilling to give up her pants for even one occasion; the couple was married by a Unitarian minister because Walker refused to include the “to obey” portion of the vows; and she refused to give up her maiden name. Walker and Miller established a joint practice in Rome, New York which experienced little success, but Walker was eager to assist her husband and engaged in typical wifely duties.
Albert Miller remains an incomplete figure because he left few records and Walker said little about him in later years. He was described by acquaintances as a “charismatic orator” and a “free-thinker” who accepted Walker’s unconventional attributes. However, the Walker and Miller marriage did not last due to rumored infidelity on Miller’s part. For a woman who later wrote that “true conjugal companionship is the greatest blessing . . . to know that there is supreme interest in one individual . . .” infidelity was unforgivable. Mary Walker removed Albert Miller from her life and dissolved their medical practice though the divorce was not final until 1869. She attempted a divorce when she went to Iowa in 1860, but only succeeded in inciting a protest on her behalf after her exclusion from a rhetoric class. After the dissolution of their marriage Walker refused to speak about Albert Miller except when she referred to him as “‘that villain’.” After the end of her marriage in 1860 Mary Walker committed herself to medicine “more seriously” than at any other time in her life.
She also renewed her commitment to dress reform and suffrage.
In 1857 Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck, another physician and editor of the women’s magazine Sybil, asked Walker to contribute to the magazine. The beginning of this association formed a turning point in Walker’s life because in 1858 through her association with Hasbrouck she began her career as a lecturer on dress reform. Biographer Charles Snyder states that she began lecturing in Dec. 1857. However, Walker did not confine herself to just dress reform in her lectures; she also spoke about marriage, equal rights, and on the smallpox vaccine. For a while Walker’s intentions coincided with the rest of the suffrage movement and she helped produce press releases and pamphlets for the movement and testified in Congress about voting rights for women. However, in 1861 Walker put her reform work on hold.
Walker abandoned her career on the lecture circuit and her practice in Rome, New York for battlefield hospitals when the Civil War began. It should not be surprising that Walker was also an abolitionist especially since her parents were both abolitionists and her mother’s cousin was the abolitionist and orator Robert Ingersoll. Walker was also patriotic and wanted to serve the Union, but only on her own terms. After the first Battle of Bull Run Mary Walker, with her father’s support, went to Washington, D.C. to offer her services as a surgeon. She believed that the Civil War would provide the opportunity to “achieve recognition and success” and in doing so make it more acceptable for women to become physicians. This prediction proved correct because by 1880 the number of female physicians rose from two hundred to 2,423 and by 1900 more than 7000 existed in the United States.
However, during the war most women served as nurses or as “sanitary agents” because they were deemed by society as acceptable positions for women. An estimated seven women served as physicians during the war including the only known Confederate female physician to serve, Oriana Moon. The number of known women who served as physicians in the war is small because most accepted positions as nurses despite their medical degree. They wanted to serve in the war and nursing was a course that was consistent with the Victorian “model of service and self-sacrifice.” Walker refused to be classified or relegated to the position of a nurse, but her war time experience was one of constant struggle for recognition as a surgeon and physician.
Once she was in Washington Walker set out to obtain a position as a contract surgeon with the United States Army. She first applied to the Surgeon General at the time, Clement Finley, for a commission but he rejected her because of her gender and her eclectic medical training. Her rejection resulted from regulations implemented by the United States Sanitary Commission, created in 1861 to reform the Union Army’s Medical Department. Their reforms included the elimination of incompetent doctors and as a graduate of an Eclectic medical school the USSC considered Walker as such and her gender made her even more incompetent. Walker did not give up in her quest of an official appointment, but neither did she wait for one before she began acting as a physician.
Walker began her career in the Civil War as a volunteer at the Indiana Hospital in November of 1861. The Patent Office Hospital was also known as the Indiana Hospital because mostly Indiana troops were put there. Dr. J. N. Green accepted Walker out of necessity because his former assistant had died and he needed a replacement. He wrote a letter of recommendation for her to take to Surgeon General Finley in which he stated that he believed she was a qualified physician and requested she be given the position of Assistant Surgeon. Finley and Assistant Surgeon General R.C. Wood denied Walker’s request. Walker later reported that Wood said had he been in Finley’s position he would have granted her request. Nevertheless, Walker told Green that she would remain as his assistant on volunteer status.
She considered herself to be an “administrative assistant” to Green and wrote her parents with “obvious pride” because every person had to follow her orders as though they were Dr. Green’s. Walker’s duties at the Indiana Hospital consisted of prescribing treatment and assisting in surgery. She also wrote letters for the wounded and sat and talked with them; duties that were also typical of female nurses. As a volunteer Walker had more freedom than a contract surgeon and escorted some soldiers home. However, she spent most of her time performing tasks that lessened the responsibilities of Dr. Green who found her a “‘valuable assistant’.”
Walker later described an incident when a soldier was stopped because he had a pass with her signature and was told “‘there are no women surgeons in the army'” replied that there was and she could be found at the Patent Office. This soldier’s support of Mary Walker indicated of her success in her task “to be a friend to soldiers and their families” and of her success at establishing herself as a physician in the hospital. While working at the Indiana Hospital Walker met Dorothea Dix. Walker believed Dix disliked her because she was under thirty and not plain, requirements for any woman who wanted to serve as a nurse under Dix, and she considered Dix’s “attitude toward young woman nurses indefensible.”
Walker remained at the Indiana Hospital for two months during which time she gained the admiration of Dr. Green for her skill as a physician despite her gender, dress, and non-regular medical degree. However, as a volunteer Walker did not receive the $80 to $100 a month of a contract surgeon or even the $12 a month nurses received. Dr. Green offered her part of his salary, but she refused because he needed it for his family. By January Walker left the Indiana Hospital and returned to New York at which time she enrolled at the Hygeia Therapeutic College.
Walker was at Hygeia for one term at the end of which she graduated with a second medical degree. Hygeia was a “water-cure medical school” created in 1857 and the curriculum included lectures and clinical visits at Bellevue Hospital. After she graduated Walker returned to Oswego, New York where she lectured about her experiences in the war thus far. By the end of 1862 Walker returned to Washington, D.C. where she resumed the tactics that had led to her position at the Indiana Hospital.
She went wherever large numbers of wounded existed, which led her to Warrenton, Virginia and General Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Potomac. Walker helped treat the wounded from several battles as well as soldiers who suffered from typhoid. In Virginia Walker made a mistake that contributed “to the controversy that surrounded her for the rest of her life” when, due to a desperate need for medical supplies, she tore up her nightgown for bandages. Her determination to wear male attire was controversial as it was, but to tear up a feminine undergarment in public was deemed by many to be too outrageous.
Walker did more than just contribute to her controversy while she was with Burnside’s troops; she also insisted the wounded with the worst injuries be sent to Washington where they received better care. Walker convinced Burnside this was the best course for the wounded and he authorized her to attend the wounded on the trip to Washington. Walker convinced another important figure of her abilities as a surgeon, but as stated in an article in the spring of 1863 in the New York Tribune, though she was “‘doing much good'” she still did not receive a commission.
Soon after she reached Washington with Burnside’s troops Walker left for Fredericksburg, Virginia to attend the wounded. Her work at Fredericksburg was appreciated by Dr. Preston King, but she was not compensated with anything more than “rations and a tent.” Walker’s lack of compensation prompted Dr. King to deliver an account of her work to the government on her behalf. He presented it to the Secretary of War in January 1863, but was told that no law “‘making allowance'” for her existed and therefore no compensation.
Walker did not let lack of official standing in the United States Army stop her from implementing reforms in battlefield medicine. Due to her eclectic medical training Walker opposed the practice of bloodletting and she insisted on good hygiene around the wounded. Walker was also exposed to some of the more “hideous consequences of battle” during her time at Warrenton and Fredericksburg when she witnessed the large number of amputations. She was convinced that surgeons performed unnecessary amputations; however, she did not approach the surgeons in her attempt to decrease the number of amputations. Walker worried that if she objected to the amputations the army would revoke her volunteer status; instead she approached the wounded and convinced them to refuse the amputations. In her Incidents Connected with the Army Walker stated that many men had the “‘good use of his limbs'” because of her efforts.
When she was no longer needed in the South Walker returned to Washington where she resumed her reform activities as well as engaged in various benevolent acts. Walker found the mother of a Confederate drummer boy and helped her obtain a job as a nurse so she could “‘do what she could for other mothers’ sons’.” She was asked by the family of a Lieutenant Wren to “‘use her influence'” to find him; her search led her to Alexandria, Virginia despite the risk. Walker found that her manner of dress, homemade uniform of a blue officer’s tunic with gold striped pants, attracted women who needed help finding husbands and sons. Walker realized that many women came to Washington without a male escort in search of family members and when they could not find them they had to remain in Washington.
According to nineteenth-century standards it was improper for women to travel without a male escort and many hotels refused to board them because they believed they were “women of suspect character.” Walker rectified this situation when she established a residence in Washington for these women with the help of a suffrage group. She also helped establish the Women’s Relief Association to help women find their missing sons, husbands, or brothers. Walker became a well-known advocate for women and soldiers in Washington and received many letters and pleas for assistance ranging from getting a furlough for a soldier to finding mittens.
Despite the many projects she undertook Walker was not distracted from her desire for a commission. In November 1863 she wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in another attempt to obtain a commission. This time her plan involved creating her own regiment of volunteers in which she would be the Assistant Surgeon. Stanton, of course, denied the request. Walker did not let that rejection stop her and went to Chattanooga, Tennessee to aid the wounded from the Battle of Chickamauga. She arrived with a letter of recommendation from Assistant Surgeon General R.C. Wood, but was still rejected by the head surgeon who told her she could only serve as a nurse. Serving as a nurse was not a suitable arrangement for Walker, but she remained in Tennessee long enough to catch the attention of General George H. Thomas, an association that later proved useful.
After her brief foray in Tennessee Walker returned to Washington in late 1863 where she decided to take her request for a commission to President Lincoln. She composed a letter in which she requested an assignment to the Douglas Hospital in Washington, but was rejected yet again. Lincoln refused out of a desire to maintain harmony within the Medical Department hierarchy. He told Walker that he would support the Medical Department if they assigned her but he would not force the issue. However, in January 1864 Walker’s perseverance garnered a result when she was assigned to the 52nd Ohio Volunteers of the Army of the Cumberland. Because of General Thomas’s help Walker was appointed by the Union army as a contract surgeon to replace the deceased Dr. A. J. Rosa. She was ordered to report to Colonel Dan McCook at Gordon’s Mills.
Before she could report to Colonel McCook Walker Medical Department of the Army called Walker before a medical board composed of a group of men chosen by the board. The board ruled that Mary Walker had inadequate training as a surgeon. The board was led by a Dr. Cooper and Walker said she was only asked about feminine diseases. According to Walker the board did not take her medical credentials seriously because she was trained as an eclectic. Walker was called a “‘medical monstrosity'” by Dr. Roberts Bartholow who said she had never attended a medical college. Walker believed the board never intended to conduct a fair examination but rather a “‘farce’.” Despite the board’s condemnation Walker went to Tennessee with the support of General Thomas and R.C. Wood.
Walker’s assignment with the 52nd Ohio was as conflicted as the rest of her career in the Civil War. She was welcomed by Colonel McCook, but the regiment chaplain and historian, Reverend Nixon B. Stewart, stated that the men hated her. According to Stewart, Walker provided few medical services to the 52nd Ohio; however, few sick or wounded existed in the regiment at the time of her arrival. Walker’s the civilians near Gordon’s Mills needed her services and with McCook’s permission she crossed the picket lines to aid them. These excursions were not without danger and Walker recounted an incident when she was stopped by a Confederate patrol and did not get out of the wagon because she feared “‘the men would see the trousers under her skirt’.” Walker escaped this incident unscathed, but her work with the civilian population raised suspicions with the Confederate soldiers as well as with members of the 52nd Ohio. Nixon Stewart mentioned in his history of the regiment that she was thought “‘to be a spy'” by some of the men in the regiment. On April 10, 1864 a Confederate patrol captured her because of suspected espionage.
Upon her capture the Confederate soldiers delivered Walker to General D.H. Hill who allowed her to treat patients because she was “cooperative and friendly.” General Hill confined Walker at Castle Thunder in Richmond, Virginia until August 1864. When she arrived in Richmond she was in her modified Union uniform and according to Confederate Captain Benedict Semmes everyone was “‘amused and disgusted'” by something only a “‘depraved Yankee nation could produce’.” This reaction was typical among her captors who were not sure what to do with a person like Walker who wore men’s attire and professed to be a doctor. The Richmond newspapers fixated on her manner of dress and several made fun of her clothes as well as her profession. One such article that labeled Walker’s dress as male prompted her to write a letter in which she stated her attire was the reform style of dress. The local newspapers were not Walker’s only critics. General William Gardner, the person in charge of her case, lectured her on her attire and her participation in the war. Gardner told her that if she dressed like a woman was supposed to she “would have avoided . . . suspicion” and he then interpreted her dissolution into tears as evidence that he made an impression on her.
Walker’s imprisonment at Castle Thunder did not consist solely of lectures about her dress; she also volunteered her medical services to the wounded. She composed letters to her parents whom she “cheerfully” told she had plenty of food, a clean room, and a nice roommate. However, the conditions were not as decent as she purported them to be and she “made a Yankee nuisance of herself” with her complaints about the conditions at the prison. Walker later said the conditions at Castle Thunder left her with lifelong health problems that hindered her work as a doctor. Walker also wrote letters to the Provost Marshal about her release; however, he told her he would be more “sympathetic” if she dressed like other women. Nevertheless, she obtained a release as part of a prisoner exchange on 12 August 1864. Walker never let people forget that she was exchanged as a Union surgeon for a Confederate major.
After her release Walker returned to Washington to recover and campaign for President Lincoln. She also visited the 52nd Ohio and soon after wrote to General William T. Sherman with a new plan to acquire a commission. She requested a commission, the rank of Major, and assignment to the women’s prison in Louisville, Kentucky. General Thomas also wrote on her behalf and recommended she receive the commission and the assignment. In September 1864 the Union Army recognized Mary Walker’s services to an extent when she received $432.36 for the period between 11 March 1864 and 23 August 1864. Her request to be assigned to the prison in Louisville was also granted; however, she did not receive the commission, but rather a contract as an Acting Assistant Surgeon. According to biographer Charles Snyder she was “unique in the annals of the American Army” because of this contract.
Mary Walker went to Louisville, Kentucky with her contract and a salary of $100 a month to be the surgeon in charge of the Female Military Prison. However, Walker’s tenure at the prison was more difficult than she expected. She expected less controversy because she was in charge of the female prisoners and had nothing to do with the men, but almost immediately after her arrival Dr. E. O. Brown wrote a letter to Assistant Surgeon General Wood about Walker’s incompetence. According to Brown’s letter the inmates found Walker’s conduct “‘intolerable’.” However, Colonel J. H. Hammond ordered her to take charge of the women in the hope that she would exert some “moral authority” over the prisoners; he stated that under Brown’s control the prison was little more than a “‘brothel’.”
Several male employees criticized Walker for being too lenient with the prisoners despite the various rules she implemented. She did not allow Rebel songs; disloyal talk; familiarity with the guards, cooks, or other prisoners; profanity; and all letters were examined. Walker’s leniency took the form of letter writing for some of the prisoners and she requested the release of others, but she soon lost sympathy for them because of what she saw as their “ungrateful demands.” The prisoners were as displeased with Walker as she with them and several composed a letter to Colonel Fairleigh requesting her removal. Walker remained in Louisville until March 1867 at which point she requested a transfer.
Walker wanted to be sent to the front as a surgeon, but instead spent the remainder of the war in charge of an orphan asylum in Clarksville, Tennessee; an article reported favorably of Walker’s transfer to the asylum and mentioned her “‘splendid talents’.” However, Walker’s last months in the service of the Union Army did not pass without the controversy and conflict that followed her throughout her life. An incident occurred at an Episcopal church which resulted in an anonymous letter in the Louisville Journal that criticized her removal of flowers that she believed supported the Confederacy; Walker responded with a letter in which she explained she was “‘shocked by the attitude of the minister'” and congregation. On May 5, 1865 Dr. Cooper relieved Walker of duty and she returned to Washington. The end of the Civil War was the end of “one of the happiest epochs” of her career.
The end of the war did not signal the end of Walker’s quest for recognition as a surgeon in the military and she was soon occupied in the pursuit of a peacetime military commission. However, the assertiveness she exhibited in wartime that was often tolerated because it garnered results was an irritation to people like the new Surgeon General M.B. Ames in peacetime. In her efforts to obtain a peacetime commission she appealed to President Andrew Johnson. Johnson was inundated with letters of recommendation written by various male supporters, including General Sherman who once told her to “‘wear proper clothing'” and imitate the nurses. Ames reminded Johnson that she was found incompetent by the medical board, but he still considered the case.
Judge Advocate General J. Holt denied Walker’s requests for a peacetime and a retroactive commission primarily because of her failure before the medical board. Holt denied her request on the grounds that no law existed that authorized the receipt of a military commission. However, Holt realized Johnson was impressed with the number of letters written in her support and recommended she be acknowledged with some reward. On November 11, 1865 Johnson signed a bill that granted Walker the Congressional Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service. The Medal of Honor turned Walker into a “national heroine” which she capitalized on for as long as she could.
However, Walker did not use her newfound fame and recognition to resume her medical practice and attract patients. She completed her Incidents Connected with the Army and then stepped headfirst into what Snyder said was a “restless striving for lost causes.” The first major issue Walker became involved in was that of pensions for war nurses. Though Walker and her associates successfully sent many bills to Congress, they later died in committee. Because of her failure to get a pension bill through Congress Walker began the practice of going to Washington, Congress, the White House, or any other agency she could think of that could help the women’s rights cause. Walker was convinced that women could win political rights just by “demanding it” and men would be unable to resist because the rights were guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence.
The war created opportunities for women that had not previously existed; opportunities which included greater employment options and increased independence. The government even allowed women to do office work during and after the war. Although the medical profession did not accept women as nurses during the war or after the war they were tolerated – as long as they adhered to the rules established by Dorothea Dix. After the war women continued to fight for more rights and formed groups such as the Dress Reform League. In 1872 a woman, Victoria Woodhull, even ran for president. Considering the increased independence and changing position of women in society it was not unreasonable for Walker to assume she would benefit as well. However, as evidenced by her multiple arrests for impersonating a man or otherwise disrupting the peace because her attire often drew crowds, American society was not ready to accept her.
Ridicule and arrest did not stop Walker from fighting the battles she wanted to fight. She used her arrests as an opportunity to promote the reform style of dress. When she appeared before New York City Police Commissioner Thomas Acton she told him her reasons for her style of dress were its convenience, comfort, it was healthy and more modest, and it was accepted by people of the highest class. When Dr. Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck asked her to resume her work in dress reform as a lecturer and author she did not hesitate. In 1866 she became the president of the National Dress Reform Association where she was well received by that group. For a time Walker experienced a degree of success as a lecturer and dress reformer in the United States so much so that when she was asked by members of a social science congress to be a delegate in September 1866 in Manchester, England she used it as an opportunity for rest and relaxation.
When she arrived in England Walker found the British public more accepting of her and her unusual attire and the “British press made her somewhat of a celebrity.” She went to England to observe the progress of women’s rights, work with British suffragists and visit British hospitals but she also delivered a series of lectures. At the social science meeting she gave a lecture on a variety of topics from capital punishment to, of course, dress reform. James Edmunds, the president of a female medical society, arranged a series of lectures for Walker in the hope that her presence would encourage the acceptance of women in the medical profession by the British public.
She appeared at St. James’ Hall on November 20, 1866 and delivered a lecture on her experiences as a female physician. The London newspapers wrote favorable reviews and “denounced” the critics in the audience but British medical journals were not as accepting of her and her “‘peculiar costume’.” After the success of her British lecture tour Walker returned to the United States and in 1868 lectured on her “impressions of European women’s suffrage” as well as love and marriage.
Walker’s return to the United States was also a return to the suffrage movement. She lobbied Congress for various issues and in 1871 marched for the vote in Washington. She lectured on the same platforms with suffragists like Belva Lockwood and worked with them to obtain the vote, which was their primary objective. However, Walker disagreed with the methods the other suffragists used to obtain the vote. People like Elizabeth Cady Stanton believed the vote could only be achieved with an amendment; Walker believed “mass registration” and “declaratory law” was the best way. Walker’s association with the members of the upper echelon of the suffrage movement did not last in part because of this disagreement. She was “so obnoxious” in her opposition that she was excluded from “decision-making committees.” Walker called the other suffragists “‘sainted morons'” whose quest for the vote detracted from the issue of dress reform which she believed was the more important issue. Conversely, Walker’s single minded desire for dress reform caused Belva Lockwood, a former friend, to state that Walker’s hostility hurt the movement.
Walker’s split with the primary body of the suffrage movement was not her only problem at this time. Walker’s lectures upon her return were not as successful as they had been in England and she did not receive a large enough income from them to support her. However, when her lectures failed in the North she refused to give up and traveled to the South where she “met with a mixed response,” but those ended in failure as well. Because of health problems she said were a result of her time in Castle Thunder she was also unable to practice medicine. Unable to practice medicine, a failed lecture tour, and only $8.50 a month from a disability pension meant Walker needed a source of income.
To that end in 1871 Walker published her first book, Hit, which included her thoughts on marriage, dress reform, tobacco, temperance, woman’s franchise, divorce, labor, and religion. She dedicated it to the “practical dress reformers” who did more for women than anyone else, to her “professional sisters,” and to that “great sisterhood, which embraces women with their thousand unwritten trials and sorrows.” Of love and marriage she said that marriage was a “social contract” in which men and women should be “equal and life-long partners.” Walker said that dress reform was of “paramount importance” but was opposed by men because it made women “independent in marriage.” She believed that tobacco was a “poison the happiness of domestic life” and harmed marriages; she also believed alcohol harmed marriages and families. She wrote of her belief that women had a God given right to individuality that would only be realized when the government fully enfranchised women. Although Walker believed in marriage she also believed people should have the right to a divorce because to be denied a divorce was “like being shut up in a prison because someone attempted to kill you.” The book may have been “enigmatically entitled” but it is impossible to read it and not understand Walker’s opinion on the subjects most important to her. She followed Hit with another book, Unmasked; or The Science of Immorality, published in 1878. Unmasked was Walker’s “treatise on ethics and sex for men” in which she included her thoughts on a variety of topics considered taboo from folk medicine to kissing and venereal disease. However, Walker did not earn enough money from either book to support her and found other sources of income.
For a brief period Walker worked at the United States pension office as a clerk in the mail room. However, her supervisor D.L. Gitt dismissed Walker because she could not “adjust to the routine” and she was absent for 112 days. In 1887 the Kohn and Middleton booking agency approached Dr Walker and suggested she do a tour of sideshows and dime museums. She earned $150 a week and toured from Illinois to New York between 1887 and 1893. Even though Walker enjoyed her sideshow lecture tour it received negative attention from the public and did not help her reputation.
Despite the setbacks, the failures, and the criticisms Walker did not disappear from public life. She remained active in politics and declared her candidacy for the United States Senate in 1881 and listed as a qualification her temperance.
In 1890 she decided to run for Congress which “delighted” Republicans because of the embarrassment it caused the Democrats. She criticized President Ulysses S Grant who died in 1885 and United States policies regarding Queen Lilioukalani of Hawaii. She even called President William McKinley a murderer for the slaughter of the Filipinos just a few days after his assassination, but the potentially disastrous situation was diffused because a “peacemaker” said she was crazy. In 1898 Walker retired to the family farm in Oswego where she did little that dispelled that idea.
In Oswego, Walker engaged in activities that only made her “more eccentric” according to Charles Snyder and often angered her friends and family. The incident that elicited harsh criticism even from her sympathetic biographer was her attempt to get an employee arrested and convicted of murder. Walker relied upon spiritualism and dreams to find evidence that she believed implicated her former employee in the murder of Christie Warden. She went so far as to visit the victim’s family which resulted in her arrest. Her eccentricity manifested in less self-destructive forms as well; for example, she wrote a letter to Kaiser Wilhelm and offered him the use of her farm as a peace conference site. She also became a victim of practical jokes and her real contributions were often ignored in favor of her eccentricities.
When she was eighty-five years old Dr. Mary Walker engaged in one final struggle for recognition of all her contributions and accomplishments. In 1917 she was among the 911 people whose Medal’s of Honor Congress revoked after a reexamination of the criterion used to award the medals. The medal was only meant for those who served in the military and was not awarded for any one instance; however, Walker’s citation fulfilled neither of these criteria. She refused to return the medals, the original and the updated version she received in 1907, and spent the last years of her life devoted to getting the citation reinstated. When asked on what grounds she received the medal she said it was because of her work with the civilians in Tennessee across enemy lines. After her death her grandniece, Anne Walker, said she lost the medal because “‘she was a hundred years ahead of her time’.” In 1977 Congress restored Walker’s Medal of Honor fifty-eight years after her death.