Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Pioneer women physicians and the WalMart Supreme Court decision

Maybe it's my medical background--I come from a family of physicians, married one, worked in osteopathic medical schools--and maybe it's my interest in the history of the Old West, but I am fascinated by pioneer women physicians. I once wrote a novel, Mattie, based on the life of Georgia Arbuckle Fix who practiced on the Nebraska frontier in the late 18th and early 19th century. That novel earned me a Spur Award from Western Writers of America, an award of which I am justifiably proud. (A bit of self-promotion: Mattie is available from Amazon in print or on KIndle or Smashwords as an e-book).
My friend Dale Walker wrote a terrific book about another pioneer woman physician, who predates Dr. Fix. Mary Edwards Walker, born in 1832, practiced medicine during the Civil War, on the bloodiest battlefields as well as ministering to citizens wherever she was. Accused of spying, she was briefly held in a southern prison camp--surely an incredibly horrible experience for a woman, let alone the many men who suffered that fate. To say she was unconventional is an understatement--she held strong political beliefs and wasn't hesitant to express them all her life, she fought for woman's suffrage and prohibition, she championed the professionalism of nurses even though she always made it clear she was a doctor and not a nurse, and she fought for Prohibition. And she wore bloomers--those long, baggy pants that narrowed at the ankles made fashionable by Amanda Bloomer--because, according to Dr. Walker, the long skrits that dragged the ground were not hygenic. But it is her service during the Civil War that, to me, is the most remarkable. Most of the U.S. Army did not trust her--a woman physician? Pshaw! But she persevered--at Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chickamauga and other battles. She met President Abraham Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln and corresponded with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. After the war, she toured the United Kingdom, arousing controversy wherever she went--mostly because of her dress. In 1865, President Andrew  Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor--the only woman in U. S. history to receive this prestigious award. It was her most prized possession, something she never gave up, even when it was rescinded from the record during the height of the women's suffrage movement. President Jimmy Carter restored the medal to her, but of course by then she was long dead.
Of her lifelong battle for equality, she wrote "Woman's mind is an emanation from Deity, and man's mind is very probably emanated from the same source, and the difference in the minds of the sexes is owing in part to the roughness of the clay . . . ."
Dale Walker is an award-winning historian of the American West, with a long list of outstanding books to his credit. No, he's not a descendant of Mary Edwards Walker or her branch of the Walker family. Find the book on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Mary-Edwards-Walker-Beyond-American/dp/B001G8WCN8/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1308708580&sr=1-4. There are several books on Walker, but knowing Dale's thorough research, I'm quite sure this is the most accurate and complete.
This book--and the story of pioneer women physicians--seems most appropriate to me today, as I ponder the Supreme Court decision on the class action suits against WalMart. Sure, I understand the legal terms--there were too many unrelated cases of discrimination--but I find it significant that all three women justices dissented from the decision. And that Justice Scalia, who wrote the opinion, has been openly biased against women.
I've never been one to whine that women don't get their due--I've had a good career and never felt hampered by my gender--but I recognize it's a battle that's not completely won yet. It's like racial discrimination: we've come a long way, baby, but we still have a ways to go.

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