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Mary Walker challenged the fashion world

Published March 17. 2012 09:01AM

By jim zbick

@$:In March 1912, a writer for the Tamaqua Courier wrote a column on how the woman's rights movement of the day had influenced the clothing styles for women.

One of the top advocates of women's rights at the time was Mary Edwards Walker, who crusaded for a woman's right to wear clothing which was more rational and comfortable.

Mary was passionate about dress reform. She discarded the restrictive attire of the day, instead wearing pants, a high-collared undergarment and a dress coat that was gathered at the waist and ended just below the knees.

Despite the social pressure, she once defended a colleague's right to wear "Turkish pantaloons," commonly known as bloomers. The bloomer didn't gain popular acceptance until the end of the 19th century when women began bicycling.

The Courier writer explained how the bicycle craze of the 1890s led to some "daring ventures" into fashion, causing many women to be "laughed off the streets."

"The beauty of clothing considered from the viewpoint of artistic drapery is long, flowing, curving lines, answering to the curves of the human body," he explained. "The division of trousers into two legs breaks up these lines into short, awkward wrinkles. For such reasons, women will never wear them."

Although boomers would be more practical for women engaged in outdoor sports, he said the sentiment of society seemed to be changing, causing many to believe that "to be beautiful is better than to be strong and healthful."

Still, a good number of journalists, including the Courier writer, favored Walker's view of adapting to simpler garments for athletic activities such as bicycling or swimming.

"The early crusaders such as Dr. Walker were indifferent to the coqueties of style and to the artistic motive," he wrote of the fashion trend. "The fact that Alpine dairymaides and female miners wore trousers, and found that it lightened their toil, was reason enough to warrant the bloomer movement."

Challenging the establishment on clothing reform was nothing new to Walker. As a child, while working on the family farm in Oswego, N.Y., she stopped wearing women's clothing, calling it too restricting.

As a young woman, she taught school to earn enough money to pay her way through Syracuse Medical College (now Upstate Medical University), where she graduated as a medical doctor in 1855, the only woman in her class.

At her wedding to Albert Miller, also a physician, in 1856, Mary wore trousers and a man's coat. Their wedding vows did not include anything about "obeying" and she kept her own last name.

They began a joint medical practice in Rome, N.Y., but many people were not ready for a woman physician and the practice floundered.

At the beginning of the American Civil War, she volunteered for the Union Army as a civilian. At first, she was only allowed to practice as a nurse, as the Army had no female surgeons.

Finally, she was awarded a commission as a "Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)" by the Army of the Cumberland in September 1863, thus becoming the first-ever female U.S. Army Surgeon. Later in the war, she was captured and imprisoned as an alleged Union spy.

As if those deeds weren't groundbreaking enough, she also became the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor - the United States military's highest decoration for bravery - specifically for her services at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas). President Andrew Johnson signed a bill to present her with the medal on November 11, 1865.

In 1917, the Medal of Honor Board deleted 911 names from the Army Medal of Honor Roll, including that of Dr. Walker. Although their names were deleted, the 911 recipients were allowed to continue to wear their medals and Mary continued to wear hers until her death.

Mary wore many other hats during her lifetime spanning 86 years, including American feminist, abolitionist and prohibitionist. As a spokesperson for the suffrage movement, Mary was known for wearing male-style clothing, including a top hat.

In 1917, while in Washington, she fell on the Capitol steps and, since she was 85 at the time, she never fully recovered. Almost penniless, she died two years later, on Feb. 21, 1919, while staying at a neighbor's home in Oswego, N.Y. True to her style as a lifelong advocate for dress reform, she had a plain funeral, and was buried in her black suit instead of a dress.

Mary was not so much remembered for her service to her country as she was for being "that shocking female surgeon in trousers" during the Civil War. The same year that she died, the 19th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing all American women the right to vote.

President Jimmy Carter restored her Medal of Honor posthumously in 1977. In 1982, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 20 cent stamp in her honor.

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