Dr. Mary Walker Wore Pants, Fought for Vote in 1800s

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?”

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Video: Helen Keller Tells It

In addition to being a die-hard advocate for women’s rights, a champion for people with disabilities and totally anti-war, Helen Keller, whose 138th birthday is today, was also fiercely socialist. Economic inequality was anathema to America’s promises of equality and opportunity, she said.

The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands—the ownership and control of their livelihoods—are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.

And this same sentiment informed her anti-war stance, too:

The few who profit from the labor of the masses want to organize the workers into an army which will protect the interests of the capitalists. … It is in your power to refuse to carry the artillery… You do not need to make a great noise about it. With the silence and dignity of creators you can end wars and the system of selfishness and exploitation that causes wars. All you need to do to bring about this stupendous revolution is to straighten up and fold your arms.

Today, as our nation hurtles further and further into a right-wing nightmare, let’s celebrate Keller not just for overcoming being deaf and blind to become an international inspiration, but for her staunch defense of human rights, democracy and American justice, something which, if recent news is any indication, is increasingly blind. (And will likely become even more so…)

AFTER THE JUMP, Keller discusses her greatest regret – not being able to speak like the rest of us, which is too bad, because she left a far larger impression than most people who can speak “normal.”

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