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Remembering Female Trailblazer: Dr. Mary Walker

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ARLINGTON, VA (WUSA9) - In honor of Women's History Month, WUSA9 wanted to learn more about one of the great American heroes, that often gets overlooked. Dr. Mary Walker is well-known in many military circles, because of the 3,500 recipients of the Medal of Honor, she is the only woman ever selected.

"Dr. Mary Walker was a trailblazer of sorts," said Ron Rand, the President and CEO of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. "I think Dr. Mary Walker is a real life hero. A role model."

According to information released by the Department of Defense, Walker was born in Oswego, New York to abolitionist parents that "encouraged her to pursue an education." She embraced the idea, and began studying medicine. In an era, where women rarely became doctors, she did just that in 1855.

When the Civil War broke out, Walker jumped into action, working as a "volunteer" for the army, since woman weren't allowed to officially join. By 1863, the army relented, and her medical credentials were accepted, making her an official army surgeon for the Union. This was position was not only paid, but also the equivalent rank as a lieutenant or captain.

"She was a woman serving as a doctor," said Rand. "When not many woman were doing that - on a battlefield where no other women were doing that - in combat when only men were doing that."


Walker faced sacrifice as well. In April, 1864 she was taken prisoner by the Confederate Army, and held as a prisoner of war for four months. Eventually she was exchanged for Confederate medical officers in a prisoner-of-war swap. In 1865, she was given the Medal of Honor by President Andrew Johnson. In the 152 years since then, no woman has ever received the honor.

"President Lincoln approved the medal in 1861. Since then it's been awarded to fewer than 3,500 people. And only 75 of them are alive today. And of all those medals rewarded, only one has gone to a woman."

But Walker's legacy went beyond just medical service. She was also an ardent feminist, making impacts in some surprising ways.

"She pioneered the use of wearing pants for women," said Rand. "People who wear pants today owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Mary Walker."

There was also a controversy, surrounding Walker's medal. In 1917, she was one of 910 recipients, who had their medal stripped away because they were technically civilians. Fortunately she had it returned to her 60 years later in 1977.

"It's her trailblazing way," said Rand. "Of saying 'I'm going to be a doctor, I'm going to serve in the army. I'm going to enter combat. I'm going to wear pants when I do it.' You can just go down the line and say what a legacy that woman left."

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