Breaking Gender Barriers

Mary Edwards Walker was the youngest of seven children born to free-thinking parents.  Her parents believed in non-gender roles for their children so it was not a shock that she became a medical doctor when so few women attempted medical school.  When she was married, she refused the vow of obeying her husband, nor did she change her last name.

Mary volunteered to serve as a commissioned surgeon during the American Civil war but was turned down.  She was offered the position of being a nurse, but turned this down and decided to serve as a civilian surgeon, at no pay.  She was at the front line in many battles dressed as a man.  She refused to wear women’s clothing because they were uncomfortable (corset) and not suitable for the battlefield.  Her duties also extended to treating civilians who were war casualties.  She was captured by confederate troops and imprisoned.  She was later exchanged for a Confederate surgeon who had been captured by the Union troops.

After the war, Mary sought a commission to acknowledge her service but was turned down.  President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor, although she did not meet the qualifications of having a commission.  In 1916, the U.S. Congress firmed up the rules for the Medal of Honor and stripped 900 recipients of the honor, Mary included.  Again, Mary was denied the honor for lack of a commission, although two male recipients in the same situation kept their awards.  Sixty years later, the Medal of Honor was restored.  To this date, she is the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.

Hidden heroes, like Mary, are often non-conformists.  Mary was known for dressing in clothing traditionally identified with men.  She was an advocate for women’s rights to vote and against the use of alcohol.  The non-conformity of hidden heroes gives them the resilience to withstand the ridicule required to sustain their beliefs.  Mary’s acceptance eventually came after her death.

            * * *

“A free society cherishes nonconformity.  It knows from the non-conformist, from the eccentric, have come many of the great ideas of freedom.”  – Henry Steele Commager (Historian)

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.