Mary Edwards Walker (1832 – 1919) was a surgeon, abolitionist, outspoken advocate for women’s rights, dress reformist (she wore pants), all-around character and badass who refused to live within the confines of gender-based roles. No wonder she was known as “Contrary Mary”.
Born in upstate New York, this Woman You Should Know graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855, the only woman in her class and the second woman in the country to graduate from a medical school. She went on to become the second licensed woman doctor in the United States, after Elizabeth Blackwell.
“A woman’s name is as dear to her as a man’s is to him, and custom ought, and will prevail, where each will keep their own names when they marry, and allow the children at a certain age to decide which name they will prefer.”
When the Civil War began, Mary, one of the first woman surgeons in the United States, volunteered for the Union Army, working first as a nurse and later as an acting assistant surgeon. While working as a field surgeon in 1864, she was captured by the Confederate Army and became a prisoner of war for four months before being traded back to the Union side.
President Johnson awarded Dr. Walker the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award, in 1865 to recognize her work as a surgeon during the war. She was the first woman to receive the distinguished honor.
In 1917, the Medal of Honor was taken away from Mary and over nine hundred other soldiers when Congress adopted stricter standards. WHAT?!?!
Mary, having no part of this arbitrary reversal of fortune, refused to give up her award, and wore it every day until her death two years later.
In 1977, thanks to the efforts of her family and a Congressional reappraisal of her achievements, President Carter restored the medal to her name.
Today, almost a century and a half since she first received it, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker is still the only woman ever to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.