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The Original Anti-Fashionista

Updated on October 4, 2011

Dr. Mary Walker


She Didn't Like Corsets

If you think about what women had to wear at the turn of the last century, you might wonder how they ever got anything done in their daily lives! Corsets were particularly odious and restrictive, but one woman famously championed a woman's right to wear what she wants - that woman was Dr. Mary Walker (1832-1919). Dr. Walker's exploits regarding women's issues of the day made even Susan B. Anthony look like a cupcake.

Dr. Walker was an original anti-fashionista. Growing up on her family's farm in New York State, she discovered very early in life that clothing could make or break a work day in the fields. Corsets were NOT on her list of items to love, so she discarded the traditional female garb in favor of menswear. Surprisingly, this did not go over so well with some women, but Amelia Bloomer was a fellow champion of dress reform. Even though she was not the first to wear them, these "pants" overlayed with a short skirt became known as "bloomers" because of her influence on the issue.

Later, the women's suffrage movement and the dress reform movement clashed when Dr. Walker tried to put both of these social issues together on the same docket. Susan Anthony and her cohorts eventually distanced themselves from the good doctor with the thought that her eccentricities in the realm of anti-fashion would detract from their right to vote aspirations. A more pressing source of conflict between these two women was the fact that Dr. Walker believed that women were already afforded the right to vote under the Constitution as written and without the need for an amendment.

Mary Walker was clearly a liberated woman in all aspects of her life. Though she was married to a fellow medical school classmate, Dr. Albert Miller, she did not take his name and kept her own in her professional life. Just to be admitted to medical school was a rarity for women, and she was the only one in her graduating class at Syracuse Medical College. That did not prevent her from moving forward with a joint practice with her spouse. Unfortunately, the residents of her local area were not ready to receive a female physician, and the practice venture did not survivie.

Undaunted, Dr. Walker sought military service. She was initially rejected as an Army surgeon and was given a job as a nurse when the civil war began. After a time, she managed to be recognized as a physician and has the distinction of being America's first female Army surgeon, a civil service position not requiring a uniform...that was probably a good thing!

In 1869, she obtained her divorce from the State of New York and wrote extensively on the subject of divorce and women's rights. Dr. Walker felt that the law should be more equitable for women and their children so that there could be an avenue of escape from an unhappy home situation. She was adamant that a marriage should be between equal partners under the law, a rather novel concept at the time. Perhaps her husband didn't like her wearing the pants.

Her favorite outfit later in life included a top hat and men's evening coat and tails. She was simply stunning, but it was all too much for her fellow suffragettes. Nevertheless, Dr. Walker continued to lecture in her favorite get-up until her death at 85. Bravo, Doctor, for standing up for what you believed - every time I put on pants, I'll thank you.

Dr. Walker in Her Favorite Suit


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