In 1865, Mary Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor for “valuable service” during the Civil War. The first female surgeon in the country was now the first woman to receive its highest military award.
In 1917, after a rules change on who could receive the award, her medal was taken away. But Walker, then 84 years old, refused to give it back. She had worn it every day for half a century and would keep wearing it until her death two years later. It was the last stubborn act in a life built on defying people’s expectations.
Mary Edwards Walker was born in 1832 in north-central New York, the youngest of five sisters. A little brother arrived a year later. Her parents were teachers and had a farm. Her father was also a self-taught doctor. The couple believed that girls and boys should be treated equally. They gave their children good educations and encouraged them to be curious and independent thinkers.
From a young age, Walker was interested in medicine. She graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855, the only woman in her class.
She stood out in other ways, too. Like her mother, she believed that the clothes women wore — the tight corsets and long, heavy dresses — were unhealthful and designed to limit activity. Walker wanted to be comfortable and active. So she wore a coat and trousers, sometimes with a skirt over the pants.
Because she looked different, “boys chased her and threw rocks at her,” biographer Sharon Harris told an NBC reporter in 2014. “She once said that nobody would ever know what she had to go through just to step out the door each morning” and face the jeers.
But that didn’t stop her. She didn’t think women should be judged by their appearance, so when she married, both bride and groom wore suits and top hats. Walker also omitted the word “obey” from her marriage vows and kept her last name — highly unusual for brides at that time.
When the war erupted in 1861, Walker traveled to Washington and tried to join the U.S. Army, which was fighting the rebellious Southern states. But although the Army badly needed doctors, it didn’t want a female surgeon officially in its ranks. So Walker volunteered, spending nearly two years as an unpaid field surgeon near the front lines.
In April 1864, she was captured by Confederate forces and sent to a prison in Richmond, Virginia, where she stayed for four months until she was freed in a prisoner swap. One Confederate officer described his men as “amused and disgusted at the sight” of a woman in the uniform of an Army surgeon.
After her release, Walker was hired by the Army as a civilian surgeon and put in charge of a hospital for women prisoners in Kentucky.
The end of the war in 1865 did not put an end to Walker’s efforts to get formally recognized as an officer. She was turned down yet again but was given the Medal of Honor instead for her “patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded” and the “hardships” she faced in prison.
Walker spent the rest of her life promoting women’s rights. She was arrested repeatedly — for dressing like a man.
“Dr. Mary lost the medal simply because she was a hundred years ahead of her time and no one could stomach it,” a relative told the New York Times in 1977, when her name was put back on the list of those who have received the medal.
That list continues to grow. Navy SEAL Edward Byers Jr. received the award last week for helping to free an American hostage in Afghanistan. But of the more than 3,500 Medals of Honor given out since the prize was created in 1861, only one has gone to a woman: Mary Walker.