The lenses through which history is often viewed blur the contributions of many people. Countless deeds and selfless efforts from minority groups and women have been ignored or minimized throughout the course of human history. Clara Barton is one of the greatest altruistic individuals of the modern era, yet as a woman striving for success in the 19th century, she was often ignored or marginalized. However, nearly a century after her death, her life’s work continues to impact millions around the globe.
Born Clarissa Harlowe Barton on 25th December 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts, Clara (as she preferred to be called) was the daughter of Captain Stephen Barton and Sarah Stone Barton. Her father was a member of the local militia and served in the town’s government as a selectman, while her mother filled the traditional female role of homemaker. From an early age, Clara exhibited a determination to break the moulds of the day.
Although she was a timid individual, experiencing trouble socialising at school, she was always anxious to participate with her male cousins in physical activity. Though her cousins saw a timid girl who had failed to impress at school, they would soon learn she was equal to them. All the cousins rode horses, but Clara impressed with her exceptional ability on horseback.
Clara gave up horseback riding following an injury, but it would soon lead her to a calling that would affect the rest of her life. After receiving tutoring from a female cousin to improve her social skills, Clara came out of her shell. When she was ten, her brother suffered a severe injury following a fall from the barn roof. Clara spent weeks at her brother’s side, administering the medication prescribed to her brother by the doctors who had given up on him. Under Clara’s care, he made a full recovery.
Blazing Trails for Women
Today, Clara is known as a pioneering nurse who strode the battlefields of America alongside US troops, and as the founder of the American Red Cross. However, she first smashed the mould in America by becoming a teacher. At a time when men were the only teachers in the US, Clara began teaching at the age of 17. Starting in 1838, she traversed Canada and the US, delivering tuition.
Throughout her time as a teacher she was particularly effective at working with boys. She called upon her experience competing alongside her male cousins, and used it to connect with young boys. She was able to communicate with them and relate to them in a manner that other teachers could not. Thus earning the respect of male students wherever she taught.
Eventually, she decided to further her own education. In 1850 she began taking writing and language courses at the Clinton Liberal Institute in New York. Upon completion of her studies, she opened the first free school in New Jersey in Bordentown. The attendance grew to 603 students under her leadership, but the school’s board hired a man to direct the future of the school.
Frustrated by the decision of the officials in Bordentown, Clara moved to Washington DC. She became the first woman to work for the federal government, landing a job as a patent clerk at the US Patent Office in 1854. Clara not only became the first female to hold a substantial position with the federal government, but also the first to receive a salary equal to that of a man.
When the leadership of the federal government changed following the 1856 election, she lost her job at the patent office. It would not be long before she returned to the fray in DC, leaving an indelible mark in the process. Following the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, she saw the need to create a more efficient framework for the organisation and distribution of food and medical supplies to Union troops.
Before Clara’s intervention, the distribution of these goods during a time of war was complicated by the bureaucracy of the War Department and the US Sanitary Commission. During the war, she solicited supplies for Union troops, nursed wounded soldiers, and arranged for the delivery of food and medicine to the frontlines. In an era when women were not allowed any significant role in public life, Clara oversaw a battlefield office at both Antietam and Fredericksburg to deal with the tough role of locating and identifying prisoners, finding missing men, and burying the dead.
Her efforts throughout the Civil War garnered national attention, but the job took a massive toll on her health. On the word of her doctors, Clara travelled to Europe in 1869 in search of rest. While travelling in Europe she would make a connection with the Red Cross in Geneva that would build upon her battlefield experiences back home.
The American Red Cross
While in Europe, Clara found little rest. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 offered an outlet for Clara’s battlefield knowledge. Working alongside members of the International Red Cross, Clara went to the embattled city of Strasbourg to distribute relief supplies, tend to the wounded and help local citizens establish workshops to manufacture clothes.
Upon her return to the US, Clara pushed the federal government to ratify the Geneva Convention and eventually established the American Red Cross. Inspired by her experiences with the International Red Cross, she established the Red Cross and guided the organisation through its first two decades of existence. The early history of the Red Cross included disaster relief efforts across the US.
For example, in 1881 she led the Red Cross effort to raise funds and collect clothing to aid the victims of a massive forest fire in Michigan. She also spearheaded the American Red Cross’s first international relief effort in 1892 to provide assistance to Russians suffering from famine. Under Clara’s leadership, the Red Cross sent 500 rail cars full of Iowa cornmeal and flour to Russia via ship.
Clara put her life on the line one more time on the battlefields of Cuba during the Spanish-American War. At the age of 77, she once again tended to wounded soldiers and led the drive to collect and distribute supplies to American troops. In her early 80s, Clara resigned from her lead post with the American Red Cross.
Though she was now retired, she was far from inactive. Even during her twilight years Clara was an active participant in education reform, prison reform, women’s suffrage and civil rights in the US. Today, Clara Barton is remembered for her relentless effort to establish a relief network in the US, call attention to charitable self-sacrifice, and push for equality for women and minorities.