In February 1870, while visiting New Orleans on a speaking tour, the activist and medical doctor Mary Edwards Walker was assaulted and arrested by a police officer. As he twisted her arm and dragged her away, the irate cop hissed something to the effect of “Have you ever had sex with a man?”
He asked this because Walker was wearing what had become her standard uniform: men’s trousers under a knee length skirt and a top hat. Such progressive fashions were just one of the many ways Dr. Walker fought patriarchy circa the late-eighteenth-to-early twentieth centuries, and this was just one of the many situations in which Walker’s non-conformity inspired invective. But this manhandling by an angry man didn’t dissuade her then, nor would it in the decades that followed.
Walker, who was born in this day in 1832, had faced down such sneers for years, ever since she began wearing men’s trousers in her youth. Her parents, progressive Christians who taught Mary and her six siblings to always question authority, encouraged this rebellion. They didn’t subscribe to gender norms — her father did the “woman’s” work at their family farm in Oswego, New York — and believed that women’s wear was not just oppressive, but unhygienic.
Mary took these lessons to heart, and for the rest of her years she argued against corsets, long skirts and all other prescribed women’s wear that hindered their movement, physically and metaphorically. Wearing pants showed patriarchal America she wouldn’t be held down. She even wore pants at her 1855 wedding to Albert Miller, an event at which she refused to include the word “obey” in her vows. As she would say later, “[Men] are not our protectors. If you were, who would there be to protect us from?”
Dr. Walker also broke another important barrier in 1855: She became the first woman to graduate from Syracuse Medical College, and with honors, to boot. Later, during the Civil War, she became the first female surgeon on the battlefield, a position that led to her capture by the Confederates and later garnered her a posthumous Medal of Honor, making Dr. Walker the first and still only woman to receive the States’ highest accolade.
But medicine wasn’t as important to Dr. Walker as her fight for equal rights, especially for women, and after the war she dedicated herself to the cause. Traveling from state to state, she spoke about expanding women’s fashion, providing proper health care to all citizens, and, of course, women’s suffrage, a topic on which Dr. Walker, per usual, pushed the envelope.
As other activists of this era asked politicians to grant women the right to vote, Dr. Walker insisted women already had the right. Male-dominated Congress was simply obstructing their rights. She even tried to register to vote herself in 1871. She was rejected, of course, but still Dr. Walker persisted in her fight until the day she died, February 21, 1919, at the age of 86. Women “received” the right to vote the next year, in large part due to this pants-wearing, top hat-wearing women’s right activist who refused to conform.
Often denigrated in life, Dr. Walker’s legacy grew in death, and today her name is emblazoned on health clinics, homeless shelters, and even WWII era war ship. Fighting the power doesn’t always work at the time, but it does in the end.