Mary Edwards Walker – Rebel With a Cause

Day 203 of Colourisation Project – November 26

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Mary Edwards Walker refused to play by the rules. She often wore men’s clothes including a top hat and several times was arrested for ‘impersonating a man’. At her marriage ceremony, she never uttered the words ‘to obey,’ nor did she take her husband’s name. She wore trousers and a dress coat to the ceremony.

The year was 1856.

Mary Edwards Walker

Photographer Unknown –  Mary Edwards Walker – circa 1860s – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Whilst the prevailing attitude was that “Women are capable of education, but they are not made for activities which demand a universal faculty such as the more advanced sciences, philosophy and certain forms of artistic production,” [1] Walker refused to be held back by her gender.

She was an outspoken women’s rights activist, who sought to change the restrictive styles of women’s fashions and dress codes.  Walker defiantly pushed the boundaries of conventions by refusing to wear long, heavy and uncomfortable dresses, choosing instead the more practical option – pants. Frequently arrested for wearing ‘masculine’ attire, she insisted on her right to wear clothing that she deemed appropriate.  She lectured on and published two books that discussed women’s rights and dress reform; the partly autobiographical Hit (1871) and Unmasked, or the Science of Immorality (1878).

Society did not know what to do with a non-conforming woman like Walker. At a time when women were expected to be home-makers and remain subservient to their men-folk, Walker set her sights on Medicine. Overcoming many obstacles, she was one of America’s first female doctors having graduated from Syracuse Medical College in 1855, at the age of 21. The only female doctor in her graduating class, she soon set up her own medical practice in Columbus, Ohio but struggled to gain recognition because of her gender.

At the ‘old’ age of 24, Walker married a fellow medical student from Syracuse. It was a short-lived union however, as they separated after just three years and officially divorced ten years later. Most women of the time would have suffered and lived through an unhappy marriage.

When the Civil War broke out, Walker volunteered to serve as a doctor. After much resistance and because doctors were in short supply, the 52nd Ohio Infantry Regiment eventually gave her the opportunity to work out in the field. She soon found herself working near Union lines as a volunteer field surgeon. Not surprisingly the director of the medical staff for the regiment called Walker’s placement ‘a medical monstrosity‘ and requested a review of her medical qualifications “doubting she knew much more than most housewives.”

Needless to say her request for a commission as an officer was never going to be granted. Committed to assisting in the war effort, Walker persisted by treating both soldiers and civilians in a volunteer capacity on both sides of the war, which had some men questioning her allegiance. In 1864 she was captured and interned for four months in a Richmond prison until exchanged for a Confederate officer.

In 1865, at the end of the Civil War, Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Andrew Jackson, at the recommendation of U.S. Major Generals, William Sherman and George Thomas, in recognition of her service and contributions to the war effort, making her the first and only female to receive the country’s highest military award.

However some 52 years later in 1917 during a move to correct ‘decades of abuse,’ the Army rescinded more than 900 medals as undeserved because of their “lack of combat valor”. Some historians have speculated that the reason for rescinding the medal was to “increase the prestige of the award.”

Defying authorities, Walker refused to return her medal and continued to wear it proudly.  Walker was in fact breaking the law. Clad in her black suit, trousers, top hat, bow tie and wing collar, she wore her medal up until the day she died.

Walker died from natural causes in 1919 at the age of 86 and was buried in her black suit with the American Flag draped over her casket.

In 1977, 58 years after her death and years of intensive lobbying by her great-grand niece, President Jimmy Carter restored Walker’s medal, citing her “distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex.”

Walker remains still today, the sole female recipient of the Medal of Honor.


You are not our protectors…If you were who would there be to protect us from?  –  Mary Edwards Walker


1. G.W.F. Hegel ~ Elements of the Philosophy of Right


This entry was posted in Colorization, Colourisation, History, Photography, USA, Women, Women in Literature, Women writers and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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