Two or three years ago, while doing research on Civil War medicine at the University of Alberta, I ran across an interesting reference to a particular female doctor who served during the conflict on the Union side. Her name? Dr. Mary Walker.
Here she is in a photograph taken around the time that she served during the war. (All images courtesy of the Digital Collections of the American Library of Congress: keyword search “Dr. Mary Walker”.)
You might notice something intriguing about what she’s wearing. Namely, it doesn’t look anything like this or this, two examples of higher-class women’s fashion from the decade of the 1860s: the largest hoop skirts that would be tolerated (which evolved into bustles in the following decades) covered by more petticoats (it wouldn’t do to have the line of the hoops show), covered, finally, by the actual dress.
That was a lot of fabric, none of which is evident in the above photograph. In fact, if you didn’t know any better, it looks like she’s wearing… men’s trousers underneath that short skirt. And you’d be right.
Dr. Walker believed that tight corsets along with voluminous skirts and petticoats were unsanitary and hampered her medical practice. So she didn’t wear them: first sporting bloomers, then, midway through the war, abandoning those for a male surgeon’s uniform. She didn’t attempt to pass as a man; she was an obviously female doctor wearing a male uniform.
“They said she was too lazy to wash her clothes,” wrote one biographer, “that she wanted to display her legs, that she was seeking publicity…”
(cited in Leonard’s Yankee Women, 109)
When she was captured by Confederate scouts in April, 1864:
“Dressed in trousers and a surgeon’s uniform, the twenty-five-year-old made such a sensation when she rode into camp [at Richmond’s Castle Thunder] that several Confederate soldiers and visiting wives mentioned the incident in their letters and diaries.”
(Schultz, Women at the Front, 177)
She continued to wear men’s clothing throughout her long life (she lived until 1919) and continually advocated for rational dress reform for women. Here, she is pictured in a man’s top hat in her old age, circa 1911.
Dr. Walker was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for her contributions during the war – she was, after all, captured by the enemy – but when the American government changed its regulations decades later, they tried to revoke her medal, as she was a medical officer who had never seen combat. She refused to return it, and to make a point wore it all the time. (Honestly, just don’t award any new medals to people who don’t meet the right qualifications: don’t try to take ones that have been already awarded to awesome folks who have already proven their stubbornness!)
Here she is, pictured near the end of her life, wearing the infamous medal. Again, see how much women’s fashion has changed over the years, and how dapper and comfortable Dr. Walker looks in her old age.
One more photograph before I leave you:
For more information on Dr. Mary Walker and other awesome Civil War ladies, check out the following:
Leonard, Elizabeth D. Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.
Schultz, Jane E. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
And of course the Digital Collections of the Library of Congress for the images: http://www.loc.gov/library/libarch-digital.html