During Women’s History Month, it’s important that we remember the women who have paved the way for others and accomplished great feats in times where women were considered less-than-equal. It might be shocking to hear, but the Medal of Honor has only been awarded to one woman out of 3,517 recipients. That’s right. To this day, only one woman has earned the citation.
Left, an original design of the Medal of Honor. Navy (on the left and Army on the right)
The Medal of Honor is the most prestigious military award given to those that exhibit exemplary courage in combat, dedication to country, and unquestionable valor during wartime. The Medal of Honor was created in 1862 after President Abraham Lincoln approved provisions for the Navy Medal of Valor.
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was one of those honored with the highly coveted medal. She came from a family of abolitionists who believed in equal pay and equal rights for all. Education was first and foremost in her life, and she became a teacher to pay her way through her schooling at Syracuse Medical College in New York. Her aim was to help mankind — and she didn’t let her sex get in the way of accomplishments.
Dr. Mary Walker also continually challenged gender norms by wearing pants under her dresses.
Walker graduated, with honors, in 1855 and was the only woman in her class. When the Civil War broke out, she decided to try and sign up for the Union Army as a commissioned medical officer. Unfortunately, she was denied because of her sex. However, this did not dissuade her convictions. Instead, she worked as an unpaid volunteer and nurse in the U.S. Patent Office Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Later, she was able to secure a position as a field surgeon on the front lines. Walker worked for the Union for two years, performing surgery and tending to the casualties of war. It wasn’t until 1863 that she was awarded a commission as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian).”
Surprisingly, Walker was allowed to wear the officer’s uniform and was known to carry two pistols on her hip, just in case. On April 10, 1864, Walker accidentally crossed enemy lines and was captured by Rebel soldiers and held captive in Richmond, VA. After four months of captivity, she was traded back to the Union, man-for-man, for a Confederate officer.
She continued to serve as a surgeon in Louisville, KY until the end of the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson presented Walker with the Medal of Honor in 1865 for her selfless service. In 1917, when the eligibility requirements were changed to include “actual combat,” Walker’s medal was rescinded.
The government called for her to give the medal back, but Walker wouldn’t take it laying down! She continued to wear it on her lapel until her death in 1919. President Jimmy Carter and an Army board re-assessed the situation in 1977 and reinstated her Medal of Honor, during which they acknowledged her “distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication, and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex.”