Doctor or Doctress?

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A Female Civil War Surgeon: "How Dr. Mary is Remarkable"

Teaching Guide

This guide accompanies the primary source set for A Female Civil War Surgeon: "How Dr. Mary is Remarkable" »


This story focuses on one individual, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker: Civil War surgeon, Medal of Honor recipient, and feminist reformer. The sources provide a window into the life of a woman who throughout her life continually challenged expectations set for women's dress, education, and work. Dr. Walker's story may be used to enhance a lesson on women in the Civil War or a unit on women reformers.


Suggested classroom activities

  1. Divide the class in half. Ask half of the class to read the letter to Lida Poynter from Elizabeth Stack and have the other half of the class read the letter to Dr. Mary Walker from Rosa Sprig. Have students break off into pairs where they will explain their assigned letter, then contrast each letter with one another.
  2. Ask students to read the newspaper article “How Dr. Mary is Remarkable” and ask them if they think this newspaper article was a positive or negative depiction of Mary Walker. Ask students to write down one negative quote, one positive quote, and one quote they were confused about.
  3. After reading the letter to Mrs. C.W.M Poynter from Brigadier General James F. McKinley, have students write a letter to the board of officers who cancelled her award. In the letter, students should react to the way they feel about the cancellation of Dr. Walker’s medal of honor. Ask students to support their arguments with evidence of Mary Walker’s accomplishments.
  4. Ask students to find a news article online that discussing gender bias in the workforce. Ask students to write down four connections between Dr. Mary’s story and how women are treated in world today when it comes to doing certain jobs or participating in certain activities (sports, clubs, politics, etc.).

Lesson plans

      Coming soon

Discussion questions

  1. Read the newspaper article "Dr. Mary Walker in Durham." How common was it for a woman to be participating in special services in the United States Army? How does this contrast to the amount of women in the military today?
  2. The way that Dr. Mary Walker dressed was very controversial at the time. Do you think that women in society are still put to certain standards with the way that they dress themselves? If so, does the way that women dress affect how they are treated in the work force?
  3. Many women agreed with Dr. Walker’s ideas, but were taken back by her personality and mannerisms. These feelings are evident in the letter to Dr. Mary Walker from Rosa Sprig. How might she have been treated differently if she was a man? Are there still examples of this in society today?
  4. Mary Walker’s Medal of Honor was reinstated by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. How does this reinstatement affect Mary Walker’s legacy and the way she is remembered today?

Additional resources

  • "Eliminating Gender Stereotypes in Public School Dress Codes: The Necessity of Respecting Personal Preference." Natalie Smith. Journal of Law & Education 41 no. 1 (2012) 251-59. Accessed 6/5/2017.
    • This article discusses the controversial issue of school dress codes from a legal point of view. Students may draw a number of parallels between the debate around dress reform in Dr. Walker's time and the debate around dress codes today.
  • "Medal of Honor: History and Issues." David F. Burrelli and Barbara Salazar Torreon. Congressional Research Service. 5 September 2014. Accessed 6/5/2017.
    • This article provides background on the history of the Congressional Medal of Honor, of which Dr. Walker is the nation's only female recipient. On page five, the article discusses Dr. Walker and provides some additional details regarding the circumstances of how her medal got revoked and reinstated.
  • "Dress Reform" in Hit. Mary E. Walker, M.D. New York: American News Company, 1871. 58-84. Accessed via Women Working, 1800-1930. Harvard University Library Open Collections Program.
    • In this second chapter in her book of essays, Dr. Walker discusses her views on society's expectations of women's dress and makes arguments for dress reform.