Author Frances Altman’s fifty-year writing career includes everything from editing what was then called the “Woman’s Page” of various newspapers to international marketing with the National Sausage Council to teaching business communications at Virginia Commonwealth University. Along the way, she wrote nine middle-grade children’s books and various food processing manuals, started two corporate magazines and four newsletters, and delivered numerous marketing talks while earning a master’s degree from Roosevelt University, Chicago.
She retired about 12 years ago to the White Marsh area and stays active with Maryland Writers, Julie’s Journaling for Seniors, and National Press Women. And in her spare time, she has produced Destiny’s Daughter, a carefully researched and well-told biography, which she considers “a bonus to a long career.”
Destiny’s Daughter highlights the events in the life of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. One of America’s first female physicians, Walker advanced the causes of women in a society full of opposition. Dr. Walker served under fire in the Civil War, was imprisoned at Castle Thunder, protested as a maverick suffragist, reformed women’s dress style and received the Medal of Honor. She charmed generals, presidents, journalists and a queen. She lectured and lobbied for women’s rights from the Midwest to the White House, conveying her views on temperance, smoking, and the abuse of women. She traveled with the popular Dime Museum exhibits, and even influenced the Postal Service to make changes.
Frances Altman was kind enough to discuss her biography, a work thirty years in the making, with the Baltimore Fishbowl.
Baltimore Fishbowl: How did you choose Mary Edward Walker as a subject for your book?
As a stay-at-home mother, I had written four children’s middle-grade biographies about men. I wanted to write about a woman. I had found a newspaper filler about her that piqued my interest. I wrote and sold an article about her to the Dayton Ohio Leisure magazine to help persuade my publisher she was a good topic. But my publisher closed.
BFB: But you didn’t drop the project — in fact, your research continued for decades.
I moved on to news writing for Field Enterprises Community Newspapers and The Chicago Sun Times, but I kept discovering more tidbits about Walker. In the beginning, the best sources were encyclopedias. At one point, I talked to Syracuse University Library librarians, who had inherited information about her. They invited me to come and browse through cardboard boxes. Now, I can search the information digitally.
BFB: What fascinated you about Walker?
Her perseverance. When she met failure, she invented a way to get around it. She also had mastered the art of listening. She was not a great speaker but a good communicator. She knew her topics and could converse sensibly with people, particularly women, and congressmen.
Experts say the art of conversation is dying because social media has restricted us from conversing well. She suggested we learn to listen and think before responding. I try to convey those thoughts in my book.
BFB: How does your book differ from other biographies of Dr. Walker?
Where other bios focused on her accomplishments, I wanted to picture her surroundings, feelings, and actions. I felt empathy for her problems. She was a spunky lady. One account describes her as a “freak entertainer.” She toured the lecture circuit for five years with the Dime Museum company. It offered intellectual plays, educational exhibits, and lectures. Walker gave the same talks she presented in St. James Hall in London.
After reading Hit, I realized she had spent her life lecturing to women about so much more than just women’s rights. She was concerned about their health issues, hygiene, and women’s survival in marriage and as widows.
BFB: Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor and then had it taken away. Tell us more about this part of her career.
Her medal may have been an accident. She became a pest at President Johnson’s office, requesting a review of her Army pension. To appease her, he gave her one of the Medals his administration was freely handing out, leftover from Lincoln’s term. She treasured it, wore it daily, and did not return it when the Army Medals Board rescinded it. The board wanted it returned because Walker had not performed a heroic act during the Civil War. After years of petitioning by women’s groups in the ‘70s, it was restored in June 1977 by an Army Board and President Jimmy Carter because of bias.
What is the one thing you want your readers to remember about Mary Walker?
Keep going! She was constantly challenged but found ways to overcome opposition or reinvent a new way to proceed. I found that inspiring, particularly during Covid. Ironically, she is being recognized again by the Army as they will rename Fort A.P. Hill near Richmond to Fort Mary Walker. Also, in 2024 the U.S. Mint will include her in its American Women’s Quarter series.
Celebrating Destiny’s Daughter
Friday, May 5, 2023
10 a.m. Book Discussion, 11 a.m. Meet the Author
Perry Hall Library
9685 Honeygo Blvd., Perry Hall, MD
Saturday, May 20, 2023
Ivy Bookshop Porch Signing
1 p.m. – more info here