“I have got to die before people will know who I am and what I have done. It is a shame that people who lead reforms in this world are not appreciated until after they are dead; then the world pays its tributes.”
Those words are inscribed on one side of a lectern which is part of the statue that was dedicated to Mary Edwards Walker in Oswego, New York in 2012. The subject of the statue who had expressed those sentiments was born in Oswego, New York in 1832. Apparently, she knew she was a woman ahead of her time.
Mary Edwards Walker became a medical doctor at a time when few women were doctors, and she offered her medical services to the Union Army at the onset of the Civil War. Because Dr. Mary was a woman, her services were not welcomed, but she saw the desperate need for doctors, and she would not retreat. She continued to work in the field hospitals without recognition — without pay.
Mary’s style of dress did not make it any easier for her to be accepted. She wore a modified blue Union uniform—pants with gold stripes and a felt hat encircled by a golden cord, and the green sash of a surgeon. Mary dressed as she did because it was practical and healthful. Why should a woman drag heavy skirts through the dirt? Why should a woman’s breathing be compromised by a corset? She could perform her duties more effectively dressed comfortably.
Mary’s perseverance eventually earned her a commission as an assistant army surgeon. Dr. Mary Walker treated Confederate civilians and Union soldiers. While behind enemy lines, she was imprisoned by the Confederate army. Was Mary a spy? There are many unanswered questions regarding this issue. Mary was awarded the Medal of Honor at the end of the Civil War for meritorious services. She was the first, and only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor. Was spying among these services?
Months of volunteer services turned into years, and on April 10, 1864, after taking a wrong turn, while on an expedition to aid destitute Confederate civilians, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was taken prisoner by the Confederate forces. Mary’s medical expeditions were suspected of being spy missions.
There is controversy surrounding the spy theory. One account states that Mary offered General George Thomas her services as a spy, perhaps in an attempt to receive a commission as an assistant surgeon. Mary’s travel behind enemy lines to aid ailing civilians did expose her to information that might be helpful to the Union Army, but there is no actual proof that she was a spy.
Mary was imprisoned in a Confederate prison in Richmond, Virginia until August 12, 1864, when she was released in exchange for a southern officer, with the rank of major. Mary, who was five feet tall, was proud to add during her many lectures of her Civil War experiences following the war, that the officer she had been exchanged for was “six feet tall!” Mary Edwards Walker would have loved that the statue dedicated to her was a 6-foot-tall replica!
Mary’s strong will kept her on the battlefield of public opinion long after the Civil War had ended. She refused to wear a corset or the heavy skirts of the day because she believed that they were unhealthful. She also believed that women should be educated. Dr. Mary Walker wore pants, and thought women had the right to vote.
Dr. Mary Walker spoke out for women’s rights on the same platforms as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but she did not support the nineteenth amendment. “Why do we need an amendment for a right we already have? Doesn’t ‘We the people’ include women?”
Mary wrote and distributed to members of congress her CROWNING CONSTITUTIONAL ARGUMENT, which was a comprehensive statement explaining her approach to women’s suffrage and the reasons why the nineteenth amendment was not needed. Mary’s lack of support for the nineteenth amendment alienated her from the Women’s Suffrage Association , but it did not keep her from speaking out for women’s rights and dress reform.
As Mary grew older, her style of dress became even more unconventional. She began to wear man-tailored suits, and she even wore a top hat on occasion. In 1917 the United States’ government rescinded her Medal of Honor, and 910 others. However, Dr. Mary Walker continued to wear her medal proudly and never returned it.
Dr. Mary Walker was a woman ahead of her times. Her once controversial views on dress reform and women’s rights are now mainstream views. In 1977 the U.S. Congress and President Carter reinstated Dr. Mary Walker’s medal. The 6-foot-tall replica of Dr. Mary is wearing it proudly.
There is much more than a few paragraphs to be said about Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. She is an overlooked champion of women’s rights, but that is not all she is. She was a person that stood up for what she believed in, and she refused to sit down—even when people tried to push her down.
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Diana Erbio is a freelance writer and author of “Coming to America: A Girl Struggles to Find her Way in a New World”. Read more in her series Statues: The People They Salute, at www.dianaerbio.wordpress.com/blog and visit the Facebook Page.