Intelligence Report--Mary Walker Wears The Pants: The True Story of the Doctor, Reformer and Civil War Hero
Children who see women dressed in pants and shorts these days may not understand how unusual the practice was in the past. Nor may they understand that being a female doctor in the mid-19th century was unusual. But both of these things, and others, make Mary Walker a unique woman. Mary Walker Wears the Pants is a picture book that looks at all the ways Mary Walker was different and the way society treated her because of it.
She was a courageous woman whose parents had encouraged independent thinking. That led her to embrace a movement called “dress reform” trying to change the norm of restrictive clothing women were expected to wear. She believed in women’s suffrage and equal civil rights for men and women. And author Cheryl Harness shows that she was whispered about and ridiculed for her choices.
The story quickly gets to Dr. Walker’s service during the Civil War in which she volunteered as a nurse, was finally accepted as an official Assistant Surgeon, and was captured and became a prisoner of war. Harness then explains the awarding of the Medal of Honor and her post-war career. Harness does not explain the controversy which resulted in the rescission of Dr. Walker’s Medal of Honor in 1917 or its later reinstatement.
Dr. Mary Walker’s story is exciting and appealing, and Harness does a capable job of telling her story. Harness does frame much of Dr. Walker’s experiences around her choice of clothing, and the theme is never really distant. At points, it seems as though Harness is trying to promote this as the most unusual thing about Dr. Walker’s extraordinary life. Unfortunately, this seems to be done at the expense of more thorough discussion of her medical school experience and her career as an army surgeon. I will give the author the benefit of the doubt in the latter, however, as it is not easy to find an age appropriate way to address the blood and gore of a field hospital. It also at least provides a framework for other discussions including how people treat others who dress differently or make unconventional choices for their life.
Harness certainly paints Dr. Walker as a capable, dedicated and persistent surgeon who encouraged rethinking many previously held ideas including gender roles and traditional medical treatment in combat situations.
This is a great book for girls and boys to be introduced to a little known, but important, female hero of the Civil War (and the country’s only female Medal of Honor winner).
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.