- Since its creation during the Civil War, the Medal of Honor has been awarded to more than 3,500 men.
- But only one woman has received the prestigious award: Dr. Mary Edwards Walker.
- One of the first women to become a medical doctor in the US, Walker volunteered to treat wounded Union soldiers and even spent four months as a Confederate prisoner of war.
After the war, President Andrew Johnson presented her with the Medal of Honor to recognize her dedication and loyalty to the US.
Walker became known for her “radical” views on women’s rights and was regarded as a living legend.
Her medal was rescinded in the early 20th century because of changes in the award’s regulations, but she refused to give it up and wore it until she died in 1919.
Mary Walker was born in 1832 in Oswego, New York.
Her parents were abolitionists, and they encouraged her to flaunt the rules of women’s fashion. She soon began wearing pants, a habit that continued into her adult life.
In 1855, Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College and became a doctor.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Walker was barred from being an Army surgeon because she was a woman. She volunteered instead, working without pay at hospitals in Washington, DC, and Virginia.
Walker spent four months as a Confederate prisoner of war in Richmond, Virginia.
Despite her service tending to Union Army wounded and her imprisonment, Walker received a smaller pension than that given to war widows.
President Andrew Johnson presented her with the Medal of Honor in November 1865 to thank her for her contributions and her loyalty.
In 1917, due to changes in the medal’s regulations, her award was rescinded because she did not engage in direct combat with the enemy.
- Jessie Tarbox Beals/The New York Historical Society/Getty
Walker refused to return her medal and continued to wear it.
According to one legend, when federal marshals attempted to retrieve it in 1917, she opened the door holding a shotgun – and wearing her medal.
She died in 1919 – one year before women were finally allowed to vote.
Walker also attracted public scrutiny for her views on women’s rights, which were seen as radical. She reportedly voted as early as 1871 — a half-century before women were legally allowed to do so in the US.
The illustration above, labeled a “Chamber of Female Horrors,” mocks women’s rights activists and is missing at least one notable item: Walker’s Medal of Honor.
President Jimmy Carter reinstated her medal in 1977 to honor her sacrifice and acknowledge the sexism she fought.
- Library of Congress
In 2012, the town Oswego dedicated of a statue in her honor, drawing people from around the country remember her, according to The Post-Standard of Syracuse, New York.
“I have got to die before people will know who I am and what I have done. It is a shame that people who lead reforms in this world are not appreciated until after they are dead; then the world pays its tributes,” Walker once said. That quote is inscribed on part of the statue.