First - and only - female Medal of Honor recipient hails from north country
Just about an hour south of Watertown, the town of Oswego is the proud home of Dr. Mary Walker, the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor. Emily Griffin introduces us to that trailblazer for women’s rights, medical science, and the Civil War.
OSWEGO, New York (WWNY) - “She inspired women just to continue on, just to be committed and have the courage to stick up to that commitment,” Oswego Town Historian George Demass said.
Standing guard over the town office in Oswego is Dr. Mary Walker, wearing her signature trousers.
“Mary Walker was born about two miles from here over the hill on Bunker Hill,” Demass said, “living very humbly on a farm in rural America and yet she had such a vision for women of America and really the whole world.”
She was a free thinker from a young age, when she had the nerve to start wearing pants as a woman in the 1800s.
“The dress of the day with the corsets were very unhealthy,” Demass said. “The long dresses were contaminated because they touched the ground and the dirt. She designed her own uniform during the Civil War. She had the slacks and a skirt over that.
She was an educated young woman. The only female in her class at Syracuse Medical College, and the second female doctor in the United States. She wanted to apply that education when the Civil War broke out.
“She asked the president if she could have a contract as a surgeon in the U.S Army and he basically said, ‘Dr. Walker, I’d like to do that for you, but that would offend the males,’” Demass said.
Walker went anyway. She worked as the first female surgeon for the U.S. Army, treating both Union and Confederate soldiers on the frontlines.
For her outspoken nature, her education, determination, and, yes, her wardrobe, many people harassed and humiliated her. But Walker stood her ground.
“Somebody accused her of wearing men’s clothes,” Demass said. “She said, ‘I’m not wearing men’s clothes, I’m wearing my clothes.’”
Walker became a respected advocate for women’s rights, especially suffrage and spousal abuse.
“She sat in every president’s office from Lincoln to Woodrow Wilson,” Demass said.
Her work earned her the Medal of Honor, the only female, then and now, to ever receive it.
“Mary Walker is first and foremost the example of commitment and seeing it through,” Demass said, “and we’re just beginning to see some of the fruit of that today, just over 100 years after she lived here.”
The Congressional Naming Committee is set to recommend that Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia be renamed Fort Mary Walker. If it happens, many think she’ll be dancing in heaven, wearing, of course, a pair of pants and her Medal of Honor.
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