Feminism's Tinker, Tailor, Physician, Spy

Article excerpt

Physician Mary Walker, the first and only woman to receive the Medal of Honor, never hesitated to speak her mind or act on her convictions.

First and foremost a crusader for women's rights and the reform of female dress -- she campaigned vigorously against the ill effects of the tight-fitting bodices and voluminous skirts fashionable in the mid-1800s -- Mary Walker had quite a reputation by the time she arrived in Washington at the start of the Civil War, wearing the modified bloomer costume she had adopted for herself. She also had something of a past, having instituted divorce proceedings against her unfaithful husband.

More importantly, she had a profession. She received a medical degree (such as it was) at age 23 from Syracuse Medical College and practiced in Ohio and upstate New York in the 1850s. The military medical service denied her application to become an Army surgeon: The brass could barely tolerate a woman such as Clara Barton, who at least knew her place professionally and whose femininity was never in question.

Undaunted by the military's refusal, Walker spent the first part of the war as a medical volunteer, first in Washington and then on the battlefields, most notably Fredericksburg in 1862. Even though she was only a volunteer -- or perhaps because she was -- Walker did not hesitate to challenge prevailing practices. At a hospital set up in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, for example, she criticized the number of amputations performed, believing them unnecessary. In Warrenton, Va., she scandalized local inhabitants by wearing a male military uniform while working in a field hospital and again spoke out against the appalling medical conditions.

But her chief goal remained an Army commission, and by 1863 her efforts began to bear fruit. Arriving in Chattanooga, Tenn., shortly after the Battle of Chickamauga, when medical personnel were in short supply, she got herself appointed assistant surgeon of the 52nd Ohio Infantry following the death of the incumbent. Despite objections from some male superiors and colleagues who considered her unqualified, Walker tended the regiment's sick and wounded as well as civilians in the countryside while the armies were in winter quarters. Her willingness to travel into enemy-held territory to visit patients (or, as her detractors suggested, to spy) resulted in her capture in April 1864. She was released in August.

After recuperating and doing some campaigning for Abraham Lincoln's reelection, Walker returned to Washington to continue agitating for a commission as an Army surgeon. She was rejected again but appealed directly to the president, citing her wartime experience. Lincoln refused her request, writing her that "the Medical Department of the Army is an organized system in the hands of men supposed to be learned in that profession, and I am sure it would injure the service for me . …