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(MEDICINE--WOMEN'S RIGHTS--CIVIL WAR) An apparently unpublished sixth-plate tintype of the physician Mary Edwards Walker, who is wearing her Congressional Medal of Honor. Dr. Walker (1832-1919), a surgeon, was the first woman ever awarded the Medal, which acknowledged her heroic service during the Civil War. In a leather case. Circa 1865
Mary Edwards Walker was an extraordinary woman and pioneering figure in the history of American medical science. Born in the small town of Oswego, in upstate New York, she was originally educated as a teacher. In 1855 she obtained a degree from Syracuse Medical College and was awarded a doctor of medicine. Soon after she married Albert Miller, who was also a surgeon. The couple lived briefly in Rome, New York and, at the start of the Civil War, relocated to Washington to join the Union cause.
Unconfirmed accounts of Walker's life indicate she worked briefly as a nurse but, in 1863, was named surgeon for an Ohio regiment. The following year she was purportedly captured by the Confederate army and served time as a prisoner of war. By mid-1864 she was contracted as acting assistant surgeon with the Ohio 52nd Infantry. Dr. Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1865. However, two years before her death the citation was revoked. In 1977 Congressional reconsideration of her achievements resulted in the honor being restored.
Afer the Civil War Walker divorced her husband and reinvented herself as a prominent spokesperson for women's rights. She was an especially vocal proponent of modifications in women's clothing styles, in particular removing whale bone corsets and tight-fitting dresses, which she recognized as deleterious to a woman's overall health. In the portrait offered here, she is dressed in pantaloons or bloomers, a loose fitting outfit that facilitated easier movement and freedom.
Later on Walker regularly appeared in public as a cross dresser, and was apparently arrested for dressing like a man. A range of 19th-century albumen portraits depict a somewhat demure-looking woman in classical Victorian dress. In the late 19th century her attire, hair style, and overall demeanor drastically change and she looks increasingly masculine. Unafraid of controversy, in 1897 she wrote, "I am the original new woman . . . Why, before Lucy Stone, Mrs. Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were—before they were, I am. In the early '40's, when they began their work in dress reform, I was already wearing pants . . . I have made it possible for the bicycle girl to wear the abbreviated skirt, and I have prepared the way for the girl in knickerbockers."