No Honor, Even in Honor

Mary Edwards Walker

Mary Edwards Walker, pictured in her customary dress with her Medal of Honor

One of my heroes is Mary Edwards Walker. Among her many accomplishments, Dr. Walker was the second woman to graduate from medical school in the USA, she tended to the sick on both sides of the battle lines during the US Civil War (earning a Medal of Honor in the process – the only woman to do so), and helped create the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. But mostly I honor her for living an authentic life, and having the courage to be herself, qualities I hope to possess one day.

Being a doctor was pretty non-traditional for a woman of her day – one of her business ventures, a partnership with her husband (also a doctor), failed, probably because not many people though a woman could be a doctor.  Of course she was non-traditional in other ways, too – she didn’t wear a wedding dress (she wore men’s pants) and didn’t take her husband’s name when she married – and also didn’t take any vows to obey her husband. That’s probably fortunate because after the Civil War, she divorced him because of his adultery (which had to be proven in court at that time to obtain a divorce in New York state where she obtained it). She was granted some special consideration (including a bill in 1866 in the NY State Assembly to remove a 5 year restriction on divorce for her, in light of her military service).

When the military wouldn’t allow this non-traditional woman to be part of the paid US Army in the Civil War, she volunteered. And I mean that – she volunteered without pay. Eventually, after being taken as a prisoner of war and later released in a prisoner swap, she was eventually given a very humble salary and was made an “assistant” surgeon (despite that she was, by all accounts, as capable as any other doctor of the day).

She was known throughout her life for cross dressing. At times, she kept her hair long. She said she did this so people would know she was still a woman, which was clearly her identity, even if she didn’t follow stereotypes of the day (one of the things I respect about her is that she was willing to be both a woman and to discard stereotypes she objected to). This started from a young age, where she wore boy’s clothes out of practicality (she lived and worked on the family farm) and out of a belief that the women’s clothing of the day was unhealthy, being heavy and constricting. She carried this belief throughout her life and was a major figure in the Dress Reform movement (don’t mistake this movement for being just about clothing – it was a major force in the feminism of the day).

She believed so strongly in this that she endured ridicule and even arrest. Indeed, she bragged about being arrested for impersonating a man! Unfortunately, a rift developed between Dr. Walker and the majority of the suffrage movement of the day (including organizations she helped found) – they sought an amendment (which they eventually got in the 19th Amendment, year’s after Walker’s death). She believed such an amendment was unnecessary because “We the people” (the preamble of the constitution) already included women. In a way, she advocated for women’s suffrage in the same ways as marriage equality advocates ended up getting that right recognized – by recognizing a right already inherent in the US Constitution.

In 1917, she was dealt a blow in the form of the US Army revoking her Medal of Honor, since she wasn’t actively fighting the enemy in the war. She was ordered to return her medal – which she never did. She continued wearing it, believing she legitimately earned it. President Carter, in 1977, agreed, and restored the medal to her, posthumously.

In Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender, the author includes a section from a biography about Mary Edwards Walker, where the biographer decides to diagnose her with conditions fitting the 1960’s psychoanalytic culture:

Mary Walker’s history clearly indicates a well-established diagnosis of paranoia, representing a compromise with reality unwelcomingly thrust upon a militant and determined ego that revolted against its sex, rebelling–not in a mere turn to homosexuality–but in an open and complete as possible, switch to the opposite sex. At best, Mary Walker was a poorly adjusted and chronically unhappy wrench of a woman.

Postage stamp that "honored" her by dressing her and styling her clothes in a way she never would have.

Postage stamp that “honored” her by dressing her and styling her clothes in a way she never would have.

Just about any woman would have been a “chronically unhappy wrench of a woman” indeed if she would have read this about herself!

Lest you think she could finally achieve honor due after death with the restoration of her Medal of Honor in 1977, she was dealt a final injustice in 1982, when the US Postal Service honored her with a stamp. In this stamp, she wore women’s clothing, curly hair, and her medal. The only part of that which was accurate was the medal, which she did wear, but the rest was a lie, fashioned to fit the time the stamp was created.

Of course it isn’t particularly uncommon for people to be remade into the image of gender stereotypes after their death. Too many trans people have been buried under names that neither represented who they are or were respectful of the deceased wishes. When trans people are murdered or commit suicide, it’s common for news reports to refer to the wrong name and gender, to make them into something they are not. I’ve written about this before,

If you’re reading this, and you’re responsible for remembering someone’s life, remember them as they wanted to be remembered – even if it makes you uncomfortable at times. Sure, you can have memories of someone from parts of their life they might have identified differently, but you can do this in a way that respects them instead of in a way that makes them into the image of who you wish they were. I hope you choose the way that respects them.

When you honor someone, you need to honor the person they are. It’s no honor when you remake them into someone they weren’t. You’re saying that this part of their life isn’t worthy of honor. Don’t do that. Don’t do what the US Postal Service did.

(a note: normally I would never publish a picture of someone presenting in a way that didn’t reflect their desires, such as the portrait on the stamp of Mary Walker. However, I believe that because this stamp was widely produced, and because it illustrates the need to finish something she advocated for during her life – dress reform – it is appropriate in the proper context.  I respect that others will very much disagree with this decision, and I welcome the feedback.)

Soldiers, Voters, and Cross-Dressers

Just recently, the US has opened up military combat roles to women.  However, we’ve already had women in combat roles, well before the 21st century.  No, I’m not talking about the women who were honored for finding themselves in combat while performing a supposedly non-combative job (these women were every bit as brave as any man who signed up for a combat role).  No, in every conflict the USA (and likely others) have been involved in, women soldiers were on the front lines.

Civil War Memorial on the side of the Colorado Capitol Building.  Taken by self.

Civil War Memorial on the side of the Colorado Capitol Building. Taken by self.

For instance, in the Civil War, at least several hundred – perhaps well over 1,000 – women served on either side of the battle lines.  No, not just as nurses or such (although the only woman to have received the Medal of Honor, the highest military honor in the US, was a surgeon; she is also one of only eight civilians to receive the Medal of Honor – she dedicated her life after the war to woman’s rights, as even after receiving the Medal of Honor and being a prisoner of war, she was unable to vote).

A Washington Post article describes a book and research on the Civil War.  Unlike Mary Edwards Walker, these women dressed and acted as men during the war – in fact, they enlisted as men, using male names, wearing male clothes, and, in most cases, going undetected (unless injured or, in some cases, having a child).

Albert Cashier, likely a FTM transsexual who served in the US Military during the Civil War.

Albert Cashier, likely a FTM transsexual who served in the US Military during the Civil War.

The reasons for this were varied – some, such as Albert Cachier (referred to as Jennie Hodgers in the Washington Post article) would likely be classified as transsexual today, although it’s hard to apply modern labels to historical figures.  Albert worked as a man following the war and was eventually committed to a mental institution (for non-trans related reasons).  At that mental institution, he was discovered to be female (referring here to sex, not gender) and forced to wear dresses.  He turned the dresses into pants.

Other reasons for presenting as a man during the war included a desire for independence, greater rights, better pay (war pay was quite good compared to what many workers made, and certainly better than what women made), love (to enlist with a significant other), patriotism, or revenge (often to take revenge for the death of a loved one or family member).  Voting was a particularly possible reason as well.  Of course the reasons given by the military for this were less noble – typically homosexuality (then considered a very grave moral sin) or prostitution.  A good woman didn’t enlist in the army, after all.

Ironically, just as in the civil war, cross dressing today in the military is grounds for discharge.  While gays and lesbians may serve openly, being found out to be a cross dresser or trans person in the US military is grounds for a discharge under mental health reasons.  In fact, even having had sex reassignment surgery or being intersexed is reason to be discharged (or not admitted).  Apparently, sex organs matter in combat, at least in the eyes of the USA military.  Maybe some of this is related to the idea that only men can possibly fight in combat roles, an idea the USA had until recently, at least officially.

Not all other countries see things that way.  For example, during WWII, women bomber pilots fought for the Allies.  No, I’m not just talking about the women who ferried planes around the world, sometimes at great risk to themselves.  I’m talking about women who had bombs loaded on their planes and flew into combat with the bombs, to drop them on the enemy.  The Russian Night Witches flew some of the oldest and worst planes in the Russian air force, but successfully performed their missions.  Incredibly successfully, in fact.  They flew a dozen or more missions each during an average night (owing to the planes limited payload capacity), and most pilots flew over 1,000 missions.  Very few suffered casualties, but not because it wasn’t dangerous, but because of their outstanding tactics and flying skills.

And, today, many US allies allow not only women in all roles, but also allow trans people to openly serve.  For instance, Canada not only allows open service, but even covers SRS (sex reassignment surgery) under the military health plan (and allows time off for surgery).  Israel just enlisted their first known trans service member.

It is probably time for two things: First, we need to fully recognize that not only did women provide essential support, often at great cost to themselves and their families (just as men did) during times of war, but performed as men do in military – as soldiers.  Second, we need to finish the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell in the USA.  What matters is a soldier’s ability to perform their job, not their sex organs (or their surgical status).  Let them serve openly as who they are – they are fighting for all of our rights to do the same, after all.