Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, 1832-1919
By Elizabeth Urban Alexander, Professor Emerita of History, Texas Wesleyan University
Mary Edwards Walker was born November 26, 1832, in Oswego Township, New York, the fifth daughter of Alvah and Vesta Whitcomb Walker. His neighbors considered Alvah Walker a "freethinker" for his unconventional methods for raising his daughters. He valued women's education, sending all five of his daughters to a nearby female seminary. He also insisted that his girls avoid corsets, and long before the Bloomer costume began to draw national attention, the Walker girls were wearing trousers for their farm work.
Mary Warker absorbed many of her father's unorthodox ideas and decided on an unusual career for a young woman in mid-nineteenth-century America. In 1853, she enrolled in Syracuse Medical College, graduating in 1855 as the only woman in her class. Her medical training accentuated Walker's determination to follow her father's advice and avoid long petticoats and tight-laced corsets. In her opinion, traditional woman's clothing was not only uncomfortable but unsanitary and unhealthy. She designed her own straight, tailored trousers supported by suspenders. Over the trousers, she wore a long-sleeved, high-necked, loose-waisted dress with a skirt falling to just below her knees. Her dress drew censure from most of her classmates, despite her declaration that trousers were just as serviceable and practical for her as for her male colleagues.
Soon after her graduation, Mary Walker married a fellow classmate, Dr. Albert Miller, in a ceremony in which both participants wore trousers, and the bride eliminated the traditional "obey" from the ceremony. Walker also insisted on retaining her maiden name. Their marriage was not a success. Dr. Miller's professed commitment to reform ideas included adultery and his suggestion to Walker that she avail herself of the same opportunity was not well received. The couple separated after less than a year together, but more than ten years passed before the New York courts awarded Walker a final decree of divorce.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Walker left New York and headed for Washington to offer her services as a physician and surgeon to the War Department. Although over the course of four years, she did achieve some success and not a little notoriety as a woman trying to find a place in a virtually all-male professional arena, her failure to obtain recognition as a commissioned army surgeon rankled. Later, describing these years, she would write, "Man . . . does not know the feeling of degradation that a woman experiences, and how her soul writhes under the chains that have inscribed upon them, 'thus far and no farther,' because you are a woman." In 1865, President Andrew Johnson awarded Walker the Medal of Honor, making her the first woman recipient of the medal. Walker cherished her medal as the only tangible recognition of her sacrifices for her country.
After the war ended, Walker set up a medical practice in Washington, D.C., not too successfully as most of her patients were indigents turned away by male physicians. Walker joined the National Woman Suffrage Association formed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton because she was attracted to a new strategy the group adopted in 1869 called the "New Departure." Suggested first by Virginia Minor, president of the Missouri Woman Suffrage Association, the New Departure argued that voting was a natural right of citizenship, enshrined in the Constitution and reaffirmed in the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the rights of citizenship to "all persons" born or naturalized in the United States.
The New Departure offered the suffragists a strategic shortcut that, if accepted by the courts, could save years of labor in the trenches of state and national politics. In addition, it was based on a premise that the woman's movement had always upheld--that voting was a natural right of citizenship. Mary Walker adopted the New Departure strategy as what she called her "Crowning Constitutional Argument." For the rest of her life, Walker refused to consider the possibility that a constitutional amendment might be necessary to gain women the vote.
In April 1871, Walker organized a mass registration attempt by a large group of Washington women. After alerting the registration officials and the press of their intentions, Walker and other suffrage supporters (including Frederick Douglass), presented their request to be registered to vote. When the registrar announced that, by law, only males could register, Mary Walker stepped forward. "Gentlemen," she declared, "these women have assembled to exercise the right of citizens of a professed-to-be republican country, and if you debar them of the right to register, you but add new proof that this is a tyrannical government, sustained by force and not by justice." Her short speech failed to move the election officials.
In the 1872 presidential election, 150 women, including Susan B. Anthony, Sojouner Truth, Virginia Minor, and Mary Walker tried to vote. Walker's attempt before the poll workers in Oswego failed after she defiantly proclaimed her sex. Anthony's effort resulted in her arrest and conviction for the "crime" of voting. But the case that became the test case for the New Departure strategy was that of Virginia Minor. Joined by her husband (since, as a married woman, she could not sue in her own right) Minor sued the Missouri election officials who had refused to allow her to vote. Defeated in the state court, the Minors appealed to the Supreme Court. The case, Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162 (1874), hinged on an interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment. While affirming that women were citizens, the court declined to declare all citizens necessarily voters. Unanimously, the court held that "the Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon anyone."
The Minor decision was a blow to the New Departure approach. It was a definitive denial of the concept that participation in government was a right and that participation included the right to vote. After failing in the courts, the suffrage movement was left with the "old state-by-state strategy of lobbying, petitioning, and agitating," along with urging Congress to adopt an amendment declaring the vote should not be denied on grounds of sex.
Such tactics were not acceptable to Mary Walker. Walker believed in civil disobedience and mass measures such as demonstrations at registration and voting places as the key to enforcing the "mechanism for suffrage" already present in the constitution. Although she did not publish her Crowning Constitutional Argument until 1907, Walker tried to introduce its principles at every national suffrage convention after 1877 for forty years. Mary Walker never deviated from her belief in her right to vote as a citizen. To deny that right was to deny a woman her "unqualified individuality," and to deprive her of a means of protection for her "person, property, and liberty." Other suffrage leaders began to consider Walker a nuisance and an object of ridicule, and at one point, even returned her $1.00 membership fee in the NWSA. Walker, in turn, denounced her former associates as "simpletons" who had turned from the only true path to the vote, and she began to accuse Anthony and other leaders of taking money from supporters to finance an unnecessary push for a constitutional amendment.
Mary Walker's continued adherence to the principles of rational dress reform was another factor that divided Walker from the mainstream suffrage leaders. Walker had continued to wear trousers with a short dress over them throughout her Civil War service. As she became more prominent in the suffrage movement, fellow suffragists urged Walker to moderate her costume. As always when faced with criticism or opposition, Mary Walker became ever more stubborn--and her attire became increasingly masculine. Declaring that men have "pinned women citizens down with petticoats," she insisted that she had every right to dress as she pleased in top hat, frock coat, striped trousers, and a necktie. Her single concession to femininity was to wear her hair in curls, so, she said, "everybody would know I was a woman." Walker's persistence in wearing masculine clothing while insisting on her status as a woman infuriated her contemporaries. When told of threats against her, Walker replied, "I am a woman, though I prefer to dress differently than most women."
Her preference for a different path held true throughout her life. Although she continued to attend suffrage conventions, she never again shared a platform with her old friends, and the new generation of women reformers regarded her as a side-show freak. Walker outlived both Stanton and Anthony, yet her anger at her exclusion from their inner circle did not abate. Long after their deaths, Walker explained her lack of participation in mainstream suffrage work by claiming that Stanton and Anthony conspired to prevent her from speaking and distributing her Crowning Constitutional Argument.
Walker died in 1919, a year before ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. In her later years, as she continued to lobby Congressmen and New York Assemblymen, she was listed on the witness roles as hostile to the passage of the Amendment, so determined was she that women not be "given" something that was theirs by right. The willingness of other suffrage leaders to accept defeat of their New Departure strategy and to push for a constitutional amendment meant that Mary Walker's Crowning Constitutional Argument no longer had any relevance. The Progressive reformers who adopted woman suffrage used a different rationale for its passage--a strategy that accentuated women's moral superiority. Mary Walker never accepted the argument that women voters would improve the electorate. "If I am asked, 'if women are better than men,'" she answered, "my reply is, that depends on who the women are, and who the men are. But 'betterness' has nothing to do with woman's franchise."
Syracuse University archives house a large collection of Mary Walker's papers, including her "Crowning Constitutional Argument," published in 1907; an unpublished memoir on her military service, "Incidents Connected with the Army; and an undated article by Walker, "Why Women Should Wear Trousers."
The Oswego Town Historical Society archives contain several manuscripts written by Oswego residents remembering Mary Walker and her family. The town archives also contain the original citation for Walker's Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service, awarded on Nov. 11, 1865.
Mary E. Walker, Hit: Essays on Women's Rights (New York: Humanity Books, Classics in Women's Studies Series, 2003 .
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, eds., History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 3 (Rochester, N.Y.: Charles Mann, 1889) [LINK].
Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162 (1874), 164.
Secondary sources on Dr. Mary Walker include Elizabeth D. Leonard, Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994) and Sharon M. Harris, Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832-1919 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009).
Secondary sources on the woman suffrage movement from 1865 to 1920 include Eleanor Flexner, A Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States (New York: Atheneum, 1974); Nancy Cott, The Origins of Modern Feminism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987); Ellen Carol DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848-1869 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978); Jean H. Baker, ed., Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), and Rebecca Edwards, Angels in the Machinery: Gender in American Party Politics from the Civil War to the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).