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Mary Edwards Walker: November 26, 1832-February 21, 1919

Mary Walker

Mary Walker.
Source: Wendell, Albany; New York Public Library

"The most distinguished sexual invert in the United States"

by Jonathan Ned Katz. Copyright (c) by Jonathan Ned Katz. All rights reserved.

Despite the 1902 medical journal article referring to 1/Dr. M- W--, of Washington" as lithe most distinguished sexual invert in the United States," and the fact that Dr. Mary Walker dressed in customarily male apparel, the exact nature of her own sexual proclivities remains a mystery.(1) Walker was a militant and outspoken feminist, with a program for women's emancipation including "dress reform" as one of its major propositions. Walker was certainly a transvestite, although this did not involve any attempt at "passing," distinguishing her from the other women considered here. She is included because her history suggests connections between passing women, female transvestism, the dress-reform branch of the feminist movement, and Lesbianism.

Mary Edwards Walker was born on November 26, 1832, near Oswego, New York. Her parents were farmers, her father a self-taught medical student. The names of two older sisters, Luna and Aurora Borealis, suggest a certain originality on the part of her parents. After attending the local common school, Mary Walker continued her education at the Folley Seminciry in Fulton, New York, taught briefly, then entered Syracuse Medical College, graduating in 1855. She practiced medicine for several months in Columbus, Ohio, then returned to Rome, New York, and married a fellow medical student, Albert Miller, though she never took his name. The two practiced medicine together in Rome for a few years.

As an active youngster, Walker had disliked the restrictiveness of female clothing. When the feminist dress-reform movement, associated with the name of Amelia Bloomer, arose in the early 1850s, Walker quickly adopted the new pants outfit; and became an active writer-participant.

Walker separated from her husband in 1859 due to his unfaithfulness, and to possible sexual incompatibility, and after several unsuccessful attempts finally obtained a New York divorce in 1869.

During a brief attendance at Bowen Collegiate Institute in Hopkinton, Iowa, Walker was suspended when she refused to resign from the all-male debating society.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Walker traveled to Washington and tried unsuccessfully to be appointed a surgeon in the Union army, meanwhile volunteering her services in a city hospital and helping to organize an association to assist women visiting mole relatives stationed in the capitol. In 1862, after earning a degree from the New York Hageio-Therapeutic College, Walker went south, volunteering her services in Union army tent hospitals. Despite the strong opposition of a mole medical director and a group of enlisted men, in 1863 Walker was officially appointed an assistant surgeon in the Union army, and she adopted the same uniform as her fellow officers.

Captured by the Confederates in April 1864, Walker was imprisoned until she was exchanged for a Confederate prisoner. She briefly supervised a hospital for women prisoners in Kentucky, and headed an orphanage in Tennessee, where her personality is said to have antagonized those around her. She was ordered back to Washington in 1865 and soon left the federal service. Later, in 1865, she was awarded a congressional Medal of Honor for meritorious service.

During the Civil War years Walker began to receive rather wide attention in the press, and her fame spread. After the war, in 1866, she was elected president of the small National Dress Reform Association. and made a successful speaking tour of England. In 1867, she returned to Washington and lived for a few years with an energetic young female teacher and aspiring attorney, Belva Lockwood, the two working together in the women's suffrage movement. Walker became increasingly isolated from the majority of suffragists when her argument that the federal Constitution already gave women the vote caused her to oppose a proposed female suffrage law. Walker was further alienated from the suffragists when she began to dress regularly not only in pants, but also in a jacket, shirt, stiff collar, bow tie, and top hat.

Walker's first book, Hit, was published in New York in 1871. This autobiographical, philosophical work is dedicated 

TO MY PARENTS;

And also

TO THE PRACTICAL DRESS REFORMERS,

The truest friends of humanity, who have done more for the universal elevation of woman in the past dozen years, than all others combined. You, who have lived the precepts and principles that others have only talked-who have been so consistent in your ideas of the equality of the sexes, by dressing in a manner to fit you for the duties of a noble and useful life.

And also

TO MY PROFESSIONAL SISTERS,

Of whatever School or Pathy, and all women who are laboring for the public good in any capacity.

And lastly,

TO THAT GREAT SISTERHOOD

Which embraces women with their thousand unwritten trials and sorrows, that God has not given to men the power to comprehend, I dedicate this work, in hope that it will contribute to right your wrongs, lighten your burdens and increase your self-respect and self-reliance, and place in your hands that power which shall emancipate you from the bondage of all that is oppressive.(2)

In Hit, Walker's constant, central, and deeply felt concern is for the "oppression" of women, her chapter headings suggesting the range of her discussion: "Love and Marriage,1I "Dress Reform," "Tobacco," "Temperance," "Woman's Franchise,"

"Divorce." "Labor," "Religion." She objects to women being treated as "dolls" by men, and to females losing their own last names in marriage; she suggests that "Mrs." be accompanied by the term "Misterer" to indicate a man's married status. Walker believes strongly in the sacredness of marriage, but not in "contracts." She is in favor of divorce when two people have ceased to love each other. She argues for equal pay and job opportunities for women, and recommends that sons should learn housekeeping as well as daughters. She is against slavery, and she condemns the "unequal distribution of capital" because it adversely affects all working people, especially working women. "Away in the distant future," says Walker, lithe people of the day will charge the great land-owners, and stock-owners, and great every-bodies, with selfishness unparalleled....(3)

In Walker's second book, Unmasked, or The Science of Immorality. To Gentlemen. By a Woman Physician and Surgeon, published in Philadelphia in 1878, her deep concern for the plight of women is even more emphatically expressed. This is a popular medical and sex manual, a feminist lecture and warning, directed at men, intended to affect for the better their treatment of women. It is easy to mock the book's strange mixture of mythological medical folklore, sexual superstition, and practical medical advice, its combination of a traditional puritanism with what must have struck its readers as a titillating sexual explicitness. But its eccentricities are probably no greater than many other sex and medical manuals of its day, while its underlying, deep-felt concern for women and its angry feminism distinguish it from other works of this genre. This book contains probably the most important indications of Walker’s sexual views and clues as to her own erotic life.

As presented in Unmasked, Walker's puritanism and feminism seem intimately linked. The solution, for instance, to the double standard of sexual morality for men and women, is for men to be continent, not for women to be freer. Walker's 'first concern is always what she considers the good of women; her puritanism and other views follow. 'Her purltcnlsm can also be understood in the context of the actual and, no doubt, often brutal sexual treatment of women by men which she observed, or of which she was told. Also, paradoxically, while Walker's views are puritanically conservative, her sexual explicitness is, for its day, radically blunt.

Arguing that the ordinary costume of women" diseases both husband and wife leading to morbid sexual acts, Walker, in 1879, explicitly discusses and emphatically condemns heterosexual anal intercourse because of the pain she says it inevitably causes women. In another section, Walker also condemns a different exploitative form of anal sexuality, Turkish pederasty. Walker also comments on, and condemns, heterosexual oral acts:

Of all the iniquities of the social evil we have yet to relate the following as the most heinous possible:
The idea has been disseminated that the "eating of semen by women and the sipping of the expeditions of women by men, will promote health, prolong life, and promote beauty."
This consummation of the basest of degradations is practiced not only by the fast [dissolute] but by husbands and their wives.
The public money might better be expended in teaching the monstrousness and results of baseness so vile that adjectives cannot be found sufficiently expressive to reach the case, instead of arresting for disseminating obscene matter.
Such degradation not only debases so that the whole expression of face is soon so hateful that one is repelled at a glance, but the brain is so injured that an incurable phase of insanity results.
What is thrown off by men and women have a certain mission and effect, and is then not only of no more use, but is a positive injury if retained. Nature makes no mistakes, and her laws cannot be infringed without penalties.

In a subsection of her chapter on "Social Evil," Walker discusses "Masturbation." condemning its harmful effects on both women and men:

The world was shocked when [the phrenologists] Fowler & Wells sent forth the truths to the world regarding the practice of masturbation being so great among the young.
Many people were quite angry because of the sweeping assertions made by these doctors, but close observation proved that all was true. The great injury to body and mind from this cause cannot be computed. The wrecks in insane asylums all over the country, the loss of general health, the inability to be stable, and a long category of evil results are now clearly to be discerned. All of which result from the utter ignorance of the subject. Tobacco, intoxicating drinks, pepper, and the heating and dragging of the mother's clothing all effect the boy in utero so that an effort for relief is made by masturbation....
After puberty it frequently occurs that no amount of sexual variety or excess will prevent men from masturbation. This is sometimes practiced in the beds of their wives....
Not only are the boys addicted to this practice, ... but one has only to visit the teachers of schools of every grade and age, where girls are sent, to be convinced to what an extent the wrongs of parents are visited upon daughters as well as sons.
No one can practice this vice without the sure marks of the same being left in the face.
In a certain country the making of rubber male organs for the purpose of facilitating girls in masturbation is a lucrative business....
This kind of masturbation, like all other ways of secret vice, sooner or later leads to sexual relations.
The effects of this vice on men are numerous. The most usual are consumption, insanity, softening of the brain and disease of the cuticle, and while all these are the effect on women, there is also an elongation of the clitoris, and a, formation of warty excrescences on the vulva. Men or women who are addicted to this vice, cannot become parents of either a superior mental or physical type of humanity, because of loss of power. Such a person cannot be a desirable husband or wife, because of the loss of magnetic power.
Nothing so destroys the ability to think deeply, logically, gradually and connectedly as does orgasm even in the natural way if frequent, but especially is this true when produced in other ways.

Despite Walker's condemnation of masturbation, she speaks against an incredibly sadistic mechanical antimasturbation device marketed in 1870. Walker is also justifiably indignant about the rape of a Native American woman. In a remarkably modern-sounding statement she advocates

woman always having supreme control of her person, as regards invasion by men ...[5]

Walker emphasizes that sex organs are for procreation only, and that sexual activity and impulses should be strictly controlled. This emphasis on procreation as the only legitimate motive for sex would seem to rule out any conscious sanctioning of Lesbian activity, the tenor of Walker's argument suggesting that she herself probably directed her energy into nonsexual channels. Walker's life and feminist works certainly indicate that she cared deeply for women, but any specifically sexual attraction was probably sublimated.

In 1887 at age fifty-five, Mary Walker began the first of several midwestern tours' in a "dime museum sideshow." After 1890, she returned to the town where she was born and became involved in several legal entanglements with relatives and neighbors. A plan to open a training school for young women was never realized. In 1917, a federal review board declared her Civil War citation as undeserved and officially withdrew it, though she defiantly continued to wear her Medal of Honor. The same year, Walker telegrammed Kaiser Wilhelm, offering her farm site for a peace conference, an act which received much publicity.

Poor and alone, Mary Walker died on February 21, 1919, and was buried in the little Oswego town cemetery in her black frock coat.

See also: New York Times: “she went to making love to the pretty girls,” March 12, 1867 [Next page in this exhibit]

 

References

  1. R. W. Shufeldt, "Dr. Havelock Ellis on Sexual Inversion," Pacific Medical journal (San Francisco), vol. 45 (1902), p. 201. Biographical information on Walker is in Charles McCool Snyder, Dr. Mary Walker: The Little Lady in Pants (N.Y.: Vantage, 1962; photo reprint, N.Y.: Arno, 1974). A summary of Walker's life is in NAW, vol. 3.
  2. Mary Edwards Walker, Hit (N,Y.; American News Co., 1871), three first dedication pages, unpaginated.
  3. Walker, Hit, p. 22,38-39,136-38, 150-53, 156.
  4. Mary Edwards Walker, Unmasked, or The Science of Immortality. To Gentlemen.By a Woman Physician and Surgeon (Phila.: W. H. Boyd, 1878), p. 14, 107-10, II4-16, 118, 145. A later edition gives the subtitle as The Science of Immorality (Jersey City: Walker, 1888).