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A thoroughly modern woman

American Red Cross founder Clara Barton left a legacy of caring

Created date

April 23rd, 2013
Clara Barton

Each year, the American Red Cross responds to approximately 70,000 disasters in the U.S. Whether a single-family home burns down or a hurricane displaces tens of thousands, the American Red Cross is there to offer aid, shelter, food, and health care. They also support military families, provide for more than 40% of the U.S. blood supply, offer health and safety services like CPR training, and support the larger network of the International Red Cross. The 132 years the American Red Cross has served those in need all started with one of the most interesting and unique women in our nation s history. Clarissa Harlowe Barton, or Clara as she was known, is best remembered for the work she did in advocating for and establishing the American Red Cross. However, over the course of her lifetime, Barton was a teacher; a nurse; and an advocate of prison reform, civil rights, and the women s suffragette movement. Barton s diverse interests, her strong opinions, and her peripatetic life made her the epitome of the modern American woman, long before the words "modern" and "woman" were uttered in the same sentence.

Breaking barriers

Clara Barton was born in North Oxford, Mass., on Christmas day in 1821. As a young woman, she became a teacher and even started her own school at a time when most teachers were men. Later, she became a recording clerk in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., and was one of the very first women to be employed by the federal government. While Barton received the same salary as her male counterparts, she also received the unwanted sexual advances of her male superiors and might be one of the first federal workers to have experienced sexual harassment on the job.

Civil War

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Washington, D.C., was inundated with soldiers and chaos. Recognizing the tremendous need, Barton sprung into service by collecting supplies for the troops. She became one of the first volunteers at the Washington Infirmary and throughout the war cared for the sick, dying soldiers. In one case, she found herself caring for a regiment from her home state of Massachusetts and quickly discovered she was nursing her former students. While the U.S. military has only recently officially sanctioned women on the front lines, Clara Barton was one of the first American women to experience the perils of battle first-hand. Nicknamed the angel of the battlefield, she cared for the wounded in the midst of many battles, including the Battle of Antietam. It was there, while caring for a wounded soldier, Barton found herself in a barrage of bullets, one of which pieced a hole in the sleeve of her blouse and found its way into the soldier, killing him. Of the experience, she wrote in her diary, I have never mended that hole in my sleeve. I wonder if a soldier ever does mend a bullet hole in his coat? What makes Barton so interesting is that for all her humanitarian work, she was a regular human being subject to regular human flaws. By all accounts, Barton was not immune to vanity. She was very particular about the way she was photographed, favoring a particular portrait taken by celebrated photographer Matthew Brady. She is said to have liked color, declaring red as her favorite and embellishing her wardrobe with splashes of crimson ribbons or bows. She was also finicky about her hair so, believe it or not, even someone as selfless as Clara Barton suffered the indignities of bad hair days.

Craig s List of the Civil War

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, people turned to Craig s List to locate missing loved ones. In the aftermath of the Civil War, they turned to Clara Barton. Barton s allegiance to her soldier boys as she called them did not end when the fighting did. Barton aided the thousands of families trying to find information about missing soldiers. As President Abraham Lincoln wrote, To the Friends of Missing Persons: Miss Clara Barton has kindly offered to search for the missing prisoners of war. Please address her giving her the name, regiment, and company of any missing prisoner. At the conclusion of her mission, Barton s office had answered 63,183 letters and helped identify 22,000 missing men.

American Red Cross

In the war s aftermath, Barton established The American Red Cross, a national humanitarian organization to aid Americans when disaster strikes. She lobbied Congress, the president, and anyone else who would listen to support the Geneva Convention, and in 1882, President Chester Arthur signed the treaty. It was ratified by the senate two years later. Barton was 60 years old when she established the American Red Cross and went on to lead the organization for 23 years. Since then, the scope and the depth of the organization have broadened, but the heart and the desire to provide compassionate care to those in need stay true to their founder s original