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Thursday, August 20, 2009

THE BUTCH BABE

I would write Mary Walker a love letter, but frankly I don’t think she would respond. In the first place she’s been dead for a hundred years. They buried her in 1919 in her suit, complete with pants and a vest, and her medal of honor pinned to her coat - still the only one ever awarded to a woman. But secondly, and more importantly, I suspect that Mary was gay and might not appreciate my advances. Not that it really matters, nor is any of my business, but... I know some people would rather believe that “gayness” is a recent “liberal” life style choice, but it has been around for as long as sexual reproduction has. Now, I have no proof that Mary Walker was gay - except that she wore pants, which at the time was the Lesbian “Sine qua non”.. Thank God we have moved past that. But gay or not the lady was very butch, and I mean that in a complementary way. My suspicion is also that she was far more attractive in person than the still photographs of the time admit, because Mary was always in motion. Her father was a self taught surgeon in Oswego, New York. It was and is a port town, and in the years leading up to the civil war was a railroad and canal junction as well, 140 miles from Niagara but just 60 miles across Lake Ontario from Kingston, Canada. Mary was the youngest child of six - five of them girls - and graduated from the Syracuse Medical College in 1855, the only woman in her class. After graduation she married classmate Dr. Albert Miller, and they set up a joint practice in Rome, New York. But neither the marriage nor the practice took root. I have to wonder if poor Albert had any idea what he was getting into. But I also wonder if Mary did. She was just twenty-one, and had already taken to wearing pants in public.The enormity of that decision for a 19th century woman is difficult to envision today. The Victorian ideal for women was the hourglass figure, with a waist no wider than 10 to 20 inches. Now, the only adults on earth with a natural 15 inch waist are really skinny people. But skinny women tend to have no bosoms and no behinds, because they have no body fat. Women got around this impediment to beauty with the hoop skirt (patent number 4548 granted in 1846) which hid the real shape of the legs and the behind and which by 1860 had reached six feet wide. And then fashion added the corset (179 patents for which were granted between 1815 and 1895) and which was designed to force the bosoms up and out (for maximum visible cleavage) at the same time as actually forcing the two bottom ribs under the rib cage (for maximum minimum waistline). The triumph of this fashion immediately led to two other inventions – the armless “fainting couch” , which ironically also resembled a psychiatrists's couch, and which was usually located in a “fainting room” just off the grand ballroom, where “smelling salts” were available for women recovering from oxygen deficiency and perforated diaphragms. Wearing a Victorian gown on a shopping spree was the full body equivalent of wearing 12”stiletto heels while trying to escape a smoky house fire. And God forbid you should have to “tinkle” while out of the house because it could take twenty minutes and a couple of servant girls for a Victorian woman to gain clear access to the required body parts to be able to urinate. However Mary Walker had several advantages in choosing pants over hoops. She had been raised on a farm, and knew the freedom of dressing for comfort. She also had the advantage of being raised in upstate New York, ground zero for the suffragette movement. Mary regularly read “The Lilly” a temperance and suffragette newspaper, which was published in nearby Schenectady and edited by Amelia Bloomer, who gave her name to the rational women’s fashion, “Bloomers”. And Mary also had the advantage in not really caring what other people thought about her. By the time the civil war broke she had not only dumped her husband, she had traded her hoops for bloomers. She wrote, “It is my motto to live by my principles”. And she did. The U.S. government refused to recognizer Mary Walker as a doctor, so at the battle of First Bull Run in 1861 she served as a nurse and surgeon’s assistant. By 1862 her abilities had earned her a commission as a full field surgeon at the battles of Fredericksburg, Virginia and Chattanooga and Chickamauga in Tennessee. Mary argued that doctors were too quick to amputate, and often used her sex to pass through enemy lines to treat and rescue wounded Union soldiers trapped there. In 1864 Mary was caught behind Confederate lines on her way to tend to women and children struck with Cholera. Having never heard of a woman doctor before, they assumed she was a spy. She was sent to Libby Prison, in Richmond. And she was proud that she was exchanged for Confederate Major, and a man. On November 11, 1865 Mary Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor, for service above and beyond the call of duty. The same bill named her as ““…the only woman allowed to appear in male attire” As she later said, “I looked ever inch a man and I am sure I acted it.”After the war Mary became a lecturer and writer, touring Great Britain, and kept getting arrested for impersonating a man because she dressed solely in a black frock coat, trousers, a high silk hat and carried a cane – which she was not afraid to use. When she was arrested yet again in Chicago Mary flashed her congressional dispensation, and then loudly described the policeman as “He’s an old idiot.” Mary argued that tobacco led to paralysis and caused insanity, and that women’s clothing standards were inconvenient. In 1917, at the age of 85, after testifying before congress in favor of woman’s suffrage, Mary fell on the capital steps and broke her hip. She was brought back to Oswego, but she could no longer care for herself and had to be nursed in a neighbor’s home. And there she died, just at 8 P.M. on February 21, 1919.One year later the 19th amendment was ratified, recognizing a woman’s right to vote. You could almost hear Mary’s voice from grave; “And it was about time, too, you old fools.” How could you not fall in love with a great broad like that?But let the final words be her's; “"I am the original new woman...Why, before Lucy Stone, Mrs. Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were—before they were, I am…I have prepared the way for the girl in knickerbockers."
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1 comment:

  1. There used to be a phrase for this kind of individual. "Made of stern stuff." Comes from the German, "aus hartem Holz geschnitzt sein," so you know it is a for real, supreme compliment, and fitting for Dr. Walker. What an authentic individual. I look forward to meeting her someday in the hereafter. J.W. Safranek

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