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?”