Today is December 10 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you defy the conventions of your era?” One strategy used by a few is the focus of today’s reflection. Betty White, Lucille Ball, and Tammy Faye Baker defied the conventions of their eras and helped shine some much-needed light on Black performers, pregnant women, and the LGBTQ community respectively.
In a time where segregation was at the forefront of American issues, Betty White rejected attempts to keep a Black dancer off her show. The dancer, Arthur Duncan, was featured on “The Betty White Show” that aired in the 1950s. When she was encouraged to take him off because of the color of his skin, she politely declined. Lucille Ball became the first woman to break another barrier by playing a pregnant woman on television. Ball had not appeared on television while pregnant with her first child, daughter Lucie. But when she became pregnant with son Desi Jr., the show’s writers decided to write the pregnancy into “I Love Lucy” rather than try to work around it.
With the HIV/AIDS epidemic barely discussed by the US government, Tammy Faye Baker invited AIDS patient and minister Steve Pieters onto her show in 1985 to discuss his diagnosis, his faith, and his sexuality. When speaking to Pieters, who was recovering from chemotherapy, Tammy Faye started to tear up over his parents' reaction when he came out as gay. "No matter what happens to a young person in their life, they're still your boy, they're still your girl," she said. "And I think it's so important that we as mom and dad love through anything."
People like Mary Edwards Walker understood that the only way she could live her life is to defy the conventions of her era. Commonly referred to as Dr. Mary Walker, she was an American abolitionist, prohibitionist, prisoner of war, and surgeon. She is the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor. Since its creation during the Civil War, the Medal of Honor has been awarded to more than 3,500 men. But only one woman has received the prestigious award: Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. Mary Walker was born in 1832 in Oswego, New York. Her parents were abolitionists, and they encouraged her to flaunt the rules of women's fashion. She soon began wearing pants, a habit that continued into her adult life.
In 1855, Walker graduated from Syracuse Medical College and would become the second woman to become a doctor in the United States. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Walker was barred from being an Army surgeon because she was a woman. She volunteered instead, working without pay at hospitals in Washington, DC, and Virginia. Walker spent four months as a Confederate prisoner of war in Richmond, Virginia. Despite her service tending to Union Army wounded and her imprisonment, Walker received a smaller pension than that given to war widows. President Andrew Johnson presented her with the Medal of Honor in November 1865 to thank her for her contributions and her loyalty.
In 1917, however, due to changes in the medal's regulations, her award was rescinded because she did not engage in direct combat with the enemy. Outraged at the idea that she would have to return the Medal of Honor, Dr. Walker refused to return her medal and instead wore it every day until her death in 1919. Her refusal to return the medal was a federal crime. Decades later, President Jimmy Carter, and an Army review board, reinstated her medal in 1977 to honor her sacrifice and acknowledge the sexism she fought praising her “distinguished gallantry, self-sacrifice, patriotism, dedication and unflinching loyalty to her country, despite the apparent discrimination because of her sex.”
In 1982, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating “Dr. Mary Walker, Army Surgeon,” as the only woman to have been awarded the Medal of Honor and only the second woman to graduate from a medical school in the United States. Ironically, the stamp portrays her wearing a frilly dress and curls even though she broke with tradition during the day and wore pants.
Walker once noted "I have got to die before people will know who I am and what I have done. It is a shame that people who lead reforms in this world are not appreciated until after they are dead; then the world pays its tributes.” Her premonition came true. In 2012, the town Oswego dedicated of a statue in her honor, drawing people from around the country remember her, according to The Post-Standard of Syracuse, New York. Additionally as Dale Walker wrote in his book Mary Edwards Walker: Above and Beyond, “Mary Edwards Walker defied the conventions of her era. Born and raised on a farm in Oswego, New York, Walker became one of a handful of female physicians in the nation-and became a passionate believer in the rights of women.
Despite the derision of her contemporaries, Walker championed freedom of dress. She wore slacks-or ‘bloomers’ as they were popularly known-rather than the corsets and voluminous ground-dragging petticoats and dresses she believed were unhygienic and injurious to health. She lectured and campaigned for woman's suffrage and for prohibition, and against tobacco, traditional male-dominated marriage vows, and any issue involving the sublimation of her sex.
How often do you defy the conventions of your era as a way to navigate the chaos?
How often do you support those who defy the conventions of the day?
How do you respond when you see someone being chastised for defying the conventions of today?