When you head to the library or bookstore this weekend with the kiddos, keep an eye out for Mary Walker Wears the Pants: The True Story of The Doctor, Reformer, and Civil War Hero by Cheryl Harness and illustrated by Carlo Molinari. You’ll get an age-appropriate capsule of inspiration, history, and heroics.
Long before she was allowed access on a military field as a doctor to treat the wounded, Mary Edwards Walker was pushing boundaries and inspiring gossip by wearing pants. In the 1800s, that was scandalous. In 1855 she became one of the first female doctors. When the U.S. Civil War broke out she took her skills to injured soldiers in Washington, D.C. She started as an unpaid hospital volunteer and asked again and again to join the army as a surgeon. Again and again she was denied. Other women served as nurses, but Dr. Walker knew her expertise could be helpful on the field.
Then, in late 1863 she was appointed as assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army. It was a first for the military and a first for women. She set to work creating a work uniform that would be functional, including a coat and trousers. She packed her medical bag and pistols. Her strange attire for a woman would eventually create suspicion and she was captured as a spy. She spent time as a prisoner-of-war until she was released in an exchange: an officer for an officer.
Dr. Walker was an activist, a reformer, a surgeon, and a military hero. President Johnson awarded her a Medal of Honor for her service.
Mary Walker Wears the Pants is written in a direct style, but it could be argued that, considering the audience, it keeps more details than necessary at times. However, it is a story well worth reading. This is the biography of a tremendous human. While emphasizing the changes Dr. Walker worked towards, the book also introduces readers to several challenging realities of the time, not the least of these being the U.S. Civil War. Discussions could veer into any number of fascinating directions.