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Dr. Mary Walker

Civil War physician Dr. Mary Walker (1832-1919) after the war became a writer and lecturer, touring the United States and abroad to speak on health, temperance, and greater rights for women. She passionately advocated the reform of women's clothing, which she said, was immodest and inconvenient. She was elected president of the National Dress Reform Association in 1866. The Omaha Daily Bee on August 12, 1875, dubbed Walker "The Woman in Pantaloons" and a "pantaloonatic" in reporting her travel stopover in Omaha.

Walker's unusual costume, featuring baggy trousers of black velvet, immediately attracted a crowd. A Bee reporter noted that in addition, "she wore a black velvet coat-like garment that came down to her knees, and over this she had another coat of black cloth, not quite so long, with pockets in the sides. Her hat was a black straw, ornamented with a couple of red roses. Around her neck hung a long gold chain, her hands were encased in yellow dog-skin gloves, and one of them grasped an umbrella. . . .

"Running the gauntlet of the men she crossed to the north side of Farnam street, raised her umbrella, and went sailing along eastward like a schooner under a stiff breeze. It was a noticeable fact that she bore a great resemblance to some high-toned, well-dressed Chinese lady and indeed those who had not learned who she was concluded that she must be some celestial princess from the tea-raising realm.

"Small boys pointed their fingers at her, and followed her as they would a circus wagon. The doors of the business houses were crowded with spectators, who laughed and made remarks at the little oddity as she passed by them, many of which she overheard, and we could not see how she or any other woman could stand the embarrassment of the situation. But it was no new thing to her, and she stood it 'like a major.' She was an advocate of dress reform among women and women's rights, and she was only practicing what she preached. Still it was fun for the boys."

Walker told the interviewer from the Bee as he walked beside her during her brief visit to Omaha that her style of dress had many advantages: "We have no trailing dress to draw along the sidewalk to be torn by nails, or stepped on by clumsy men; we do not have any garments to lift while crossing a street on a muddy day, and thus a woman need not expose her lower limbs to the prurient gaze of the corner loafer." In reply to questions on the subject, she predicted that woman suffrage would prevail "at no distant day," but conceded that her style of dress for women, despite its practical advantages, would only prevail "at some very distant day."

(January 2007)



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