The Medal of Honor is the most prestigious award that can be given to U.S. troops. It began during the Civil War era and is awarded to service members who have displayed exemplary amounts of bravery and courage during battle. There are more than 3,500 Medals of Honor recipients. But out of that number, are there any female Medal of Honor recipients? So far, there has only been one female Medal of Honor recipient: Mary Walker. What did Dr. May Walker do to receive the Medal of Honor, and why are there no other women who have achieved this?
Mary Walker: Before the Civil War
Mary Edwards Walker was a woman ahead of her time. Born in New York in 1832, Walker was the youngest of seven children. Walker’s family was unique; her parents were fairly progressive for the time and raised their children with a “free-thinker” mindset and nontraditional gender roles.
The Walker parents embraced Mary’s independence, particularly with her dress. Mary refused to wear women’s clothing while working on the farm because it was too restrictive. Mary’s parents supported her decisions with her dress, also believing that women’s corsets and tight lacings were restrictive and unhealthy.
Mary Walker never conformed to women’s dress standards and would constantly wear trousers under her skirts. Her “manly” dressing habits were maintained throughout her life and frequently got her arrested.
Mary Walker’s unconventional family also wanted all of their children to be raised with a great education regardless of gender. She attended the Falley Seminary in New York, known for its encouragement of breaking traditional gender norms and encouraging social reform. Mary Walker loved anatomy and physiology, inspiring her to apply to Syracuse Medical College. In 1855, she graduated as Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman in her class.
Dr. Walker’s Civil War Service
When the Civil War began, Dr. Walker tried to volunteer with the U.S. Army as a surgeon. However, she was denied the position due to her gender, being offered the job of nurse instead. She declined and chose to volunteer with the Union Army as a surgeon.
As a Union surgeon, Mary Walker served near the front lines in several battles, such as the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Battle of Chickamauga. She also served at the Patent Office Hospital in Washington, D.C.
By 1863, Mary Walker finally became employed as a contract surgeon in the U.S. Army, becoming their first female surgeon. She was later appointed assistant surgeon in the 52nd Ohio Infantry. During her service, she would constantly cross enemy lines to treat civilians.
While crossing enemy lines, Walker was once arrested as a spy after assisting a Confederate doctor in an amputation. She was held by the Confederacy from April 10, 1864, to August 12, 1864, when she was released on a prisoner exchange.
Walker’s Disputed Medal of Honor
Mary Walker didn’t initially receive a Medal of Honor after the Civil War. She had to fight for her right to receive one. After being held prisoner and enduring the front lines of America’s bloodiest conflict, Dr. Walker sought some sort of military recognition to validate her service and her sacrifices. However, due to the laws surrounding military commissions at the time, women were not allowed to receive any form of commission. President Andrew Johnson awarded her a Medal of Honor, instead.
Unfortunately, in 1916, more rules and regulations were established around the awarding of Medals of Honor. The new rule stated that the recipients had to be officers or enlisted service members. Since Dr. Mary Walker was just a civilian contracted with the Army, her Medal of Honor was stripped away from her.
This was seen as a clear act of discrimination against the female doctor; there were several other male contract surgeons who got to keep their Medals of Honor despite being technically ineligible for them.
In 1977, Mary Walker’s Medal of Honor was finally re-awarded to her (albeit posthumously) by the Army’s Assistant Secretary for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, acting on direction from the Board for Correction of Military Records.
Despite her Medal of Honor being re-awarded to her in 1977, that re-awarding was still met with grumblings. The Board for Correction of Military Records went over the heads of the presidential administration at the time; the Carter White House was confused when it was announced that Mary Walker’s Medal of Honor had been restored to her.
Despite Dr. Walker crossing enemy lines to assist everyone in need when no one else had the bravery to do so, her Medal of Honor is still contested.
Females Who Have Received the Medal of Honor
Despite the thousands of women who have served in the military and displayed great levels of bravery in times of horror and suffering, there are no other female Medal of Honor recipients. Mary Walker is the only woman who has received the Medal of Honor. More than 3,500 men are Medal of Honor recipients; female recipients are only one.
So, why are there so few female Medal of Honor winners? Due to the discourse surrounding Mary Walker’s Medal of Honor, it wouldn’t be hard to point the finger at sex discrimination. Plus, women were only formally allowed into the military in the mid-1900s. There are thousands of women other than Dr. Mary Walker who many argue deserve a Medal of Honor, but as of now, she’s the only woman to hold one.
Dr. Walker was a woman who made significant contributions to the medical world as well as the military world. Being the only woman to hold a Medal of Honor, Dr. Mary Walker is a role model for female doctors and troops everywhere. There are likely countless women who undoubtedly deserve the award, and hopefully more awards will be given to women troops in the future.
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