A Letter to the Lady in Pants: Dr. Mary Edwards Walker and the History of Women (Un)Worthies
“WALKER, Mary Edwards (Nov. 26, 1832 – Feb. 21, 1919), Civil War medical worker, dress reformer, and eccentric.” So begins the description of the collected papers of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker at Syracuse University: a strange summary of a strange life.1
Dr. Walker, though she was a contemporary of Drs. Elizabeth Blackwell, Ann Preston, and Mary Putnam Jacobi, has never enjoyed the same respect afforded to these other 19th-century pioneers. She graduated from medical school less than a decade after Blackwell became the first woman to do so in the United States and fought doggedly for the right to practice as an assistant surgeon during the Civil War. But the unapologetic drive and promise of Dr. Walker’s early career diminished in later years as she focused on more personal campaigns: badgering the Army for a pension, bickering with fellow dress reformers long after that movement lost its relevance, publishing dubiously scientific treatises on sexual matters, and even attempting to have her hired man arrested for murder in exchange for a cash reward. She gave up medical practice entirely after the war, dressed as a man, and antagonized public officials.
In 1917, two years before her death, the federal government acknowledged what Americans had known for quite some time: that “the little lady in pants” had ceased to be a pioneer and become something of a joke. They revoked the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded for her services in the Civil War. Though she wore the medal proudly till her death, Walker never succeeded in reversing the government’s decision, and her legacy remains as the Syracuse inventory suggests: a medical worker (but not a respected physician) and a dress reformer, but, first and foremost, an eccentric.
Dr. Walker and women like her raise questions for the history of women in medicine, which tends to focus on remarkable women, self-conscious pioneers who opened the way for others with dignity, compassion, and feminist resolve. It’s easy to see Elizabeth Blackwell, the groundbreaking pioneer celebrated today in bronze monuments and children’s books, as a historical heroine; it’s much harder to see Mary Walker, with her stubborn idiosyncrasies, officious insistence on recognition, and ultimate obscurity, as a figure to elevate in the history of early women physicians.
Most of the documents in the collected papers at Syracuse tend to cast Dr. Walker’s life as a progression from youthful pioneer to self-absorbed nonconformist. Documents relating to her divorce, her disputed pension, and her disruptive prominence in the dress reform movement far outweigh those artifacts that show her in a positive light. For example, in 1865, she was fired from her position as supervisor at the Louisville, Kentucky female military prison. But rather than letting it go, she instead wrote an angry letter, strenuously defending her despotic rule over the inmates.2
She also didn’t get along well with her fellow dress reform advocates. Barely a month later, she criticized fellow reformers as only “talking a principle without living it,” resulting in a terse, aggressively polite note from Addie Hitchens, who pointed out that the army surgeon herself had not adopted masculine dress until she had “built up around [her] conditions favorable thereto.”3 In the years after the war, she gave lectures on “scientific subjects” at theaters like the Wonderland Musee Theater and Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY, where she appeared alongside “The Ever Popular MERRY SINGLETON, With his Comical Wooden-Headed Family” and “Grace Courtland, the Witch of Wall Street.”4 Whoever she meant to be at the dawn of her career, it seems that by her later years Dr. Mary Walker was little better than a joke.
“As a Man Never Could”
Yet beneath the almost comical pettiness of these documents, glimpses of another story emerge. Among the letters saved in the collection is a note Walker received in November of 1863 from a young wife and mother named Julie L. Hayes.5 In three eloquent pages, Hayes laid out her troubles for her “dear friend” Dr. Walker: her young daughter, struck with “a severe fit of illness,” was sinking fast, her heavily pregnant mother was in equally poor health, and Julie, caught at the generational divide, was their sole nurse. “[My mother] expects to be confined next month,” Julie wrote, “but whether she will live till then God alone knows and I very much fear if she does she will not live through childbirth as her health for the past two years has been so delicate and her age is forty three.” Fearing the worst, Julie wished only that her husband could return home for a few days — to see their daughter, to help her with the work of nursing, and to give her comfort in those last days should her best efforts prove hopeless. “This is the 19th month since he has been home,” she told Walker, and even a short furlough “would cover our pressing needs.”
Perhaps sensing she had been too forward in this desperate entreaty, Mrs. Hayes gave her reasons for writing to Dr. Walker for assistance. “I thought I would be this explicit,” she explained, “as you would then see as a man never could my great need, and feeling assured of your sympathy and assistance, I apply to you the soldier’s friend, for this great kindness.”6
How this story ends remains a mystery: a search of census records and military documents doesn’t reveal whether Mr. Hayes came home, whether the daughter and mother survived, or whether Dr. Walker even responded to Julie’s plea. Like so many of the episodes that make up the history of American women, this snapshot of domestic crisis leaves us with no comforting answers.
Women’s history has long been a story of isolation and fear, of embattled generations of women struggling against the social and biological snares that encircle their lives. This letter, in its tying together of birth, death, marriage, and suffering, in its unsatisfying uncertainty, might be the perfect example of the long, dark shadow that lay over women’s lives in the nineteenth century.
History of Imperfect Women
Women’s history has long been a story of isolation — but also one of solidarity. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, in the very first issue of Signs, wrote of the “female world of love and ritual,” and Judith Leavitt has constructed a compelling picture of the social webs women wove to push back the “shadow of maternity” in an age when childbirth could mean death. Throughout history, women have formed networks of mutual support, giving and asking for the strength to overcome the trials of motherhood, marriage, and life in a world that often offered more despair than hope for the “weaker” sex.
Julie Hayes’s letter shows a young wife and mother extending this appeal to Dr. Walker, seeking in the female surgeon a link to the masculine world that had turned a blind eye to her plight. Eccentric or not, even the cantankerous lady in in pants held a strand of the invisible web that offered hope to women facing hopeless odds.
Perhaps the best lesson to be drawn from Walker’s papers is simply that a history of heroism can be written from the lives of individuals we struggle to see as heroes.
Even as Dr. Walker’s contemporaries and biographers saw her increasingly diverging from the picture of a worthy pioneer for women’s health and independence, in 1863 Julie Hayes saw in her a source of comfort and assistance, an advocate for a wife and mother without resources. We need a history of great women more than we need a history of great men, but we may need another history even more: a history of imperfect women, women who cannot be role models, who break the rules and veer away from the path of greatness. In the lives of women like Dr. Walker, we see not the lofty limits of feminist resolve, but the complicated, sometimes frustrating, sometimes heartbreaking reality of women’s struggles.
- Biographical sketch, Mary Edwards Walker Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries. Return to text.
- Letter from Mary Edwards Walker to “Commandant of Post,” January 15, 1865, Mary Edwards Walker Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries. Return to text.
- Letter from Addie Hitchens to Mary Edwards Walker, February 6, 1865, Mary Edwards Walker Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries. Return to text.
- “Wonderland” flyer, Mary Edwards Walker Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries. Return to text.
- Letter from Julie L. Hayes to Mary Edwards Walker, November 9, 1863, Mary Edwards Walker Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries. Return to text.
- Underline emphasis in original changed to italics. Return to text.
R.E. Fulton earned a master's degree in American History at the University of Rochester in 2015. Their master's thesis dealt with popular texts on abortion written by physicians in the mid-19th century, and previous research has focused on science fiction publishing in the mid-twentieth century. A student of medical historians who vowed never to become a historian of science, Fulton is now fascinated by questions surrounding history, medicine, print culture, feminism, and popular science.