Mary Edwards Walker: The First Woman to Earn the Congressional Medal of Honor
In the closing months of 2015, the Pentagon announced that all combat roles in the U.S. military would officially be open to women. This marked a key turning point in women’s rights and is indicative of progressive ideology in the U.S. regarding gender equality. One of the early pioneers of gender equality was a woman named Mary Edwards Walker, who exemplified that women can not only work and battle alongside men, but also thrive in the intense military environment. Walker proved this by becoming the first and only woman to date to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1865.
Mary Edwards Walker was the last child of seven born to a progressive, Christian family in Oswego, New York in 1832. Parents Alva and Vesta Walker encouraged all seven of their children to pursue an education and even founded their own elementary school for their children to attend. Like most educated women during this time, Mary Walker and her sisters became school teachers, but Mary Walker would eventually attend Syracuse Medical College, where she obtained a doctorate degree in medicine in 1855. A progressive and entrepreneurial thinker, Walker decided to go into private practice, a move that was considered controversial at the time. Yet Dr. Walker was educated, intelligent and determined to be viewed as an equal among men, all of which would eventually set the stage for her career and the lasting impact she made on both the Union’s war efforts and women’s rights.
In 1861, when the U.S. Civil War erupted, Dr. Walker decided to leave her home and her private practice to work as a volunteer nurse with the Union Army in Washington, D.C. Walker would eventually hold the position of assisting surgeon and become the first woman to work as a military surgeon in the U.S. Army. In spite of this noteworthy achievement, Dr. Walker had other aspirations of becoming a spy for the Union. Although her request to Washington was denied, many believe that Walker took it upon herself to operate as a Union spy anyways.
Despite the lack of historical documents, Walker was widely respected for her efforts in the Civil War, and her reputation and outspoken advocacy for women’s rights made her a key figure in the battle for gender equality. In 1865, President Andrew Johnson saw reason to recognize Walker for her service in the war and passed legislation that would allow him to bestow upon her the Congressional Medal of Honor.
However, in 1916, Congress would alter the necessary criteria for becoming a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, noting that only military personnel who had engaged in actual combat were eligible to receive this high military honor. A number of previous recipients would have their medals revoked as a result of this, and Mary Walker was among those whose names were removed from the list of honorees. These individuals were asked to return their medals in 1917, but Walker adamantly refused until her death in 1919. Consequently, because Dr. Walker was such an impactful and honorable figure who had shown unbending resolve, this decision was overturned by Congress in 1977 specifically to honor Dr. Walker and restore her validity as a Medal of Honor recipient.
Dr. Walker’s achievement of the Congressional Medal of Honor is a testament to the great deal of respect she gained from her genuine impact on the Union cause and as a key historical figure in the progress of women’s rights in the U.S. In an age of progressive thinking concerning women’s rights, Mary Edwards Walker’s story can be a source of inspiration for all women as they continue to work towards gender equality.
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