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.)