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by Robin Fisher

During America's post-antebellum period, many things continued to divide the United States. Sectionalism grew, as did issues related to civil rights, not only for the recently-freed African Americans, but also for women. In the male-dominated society, women had begun to emerge in fighting for their rights, but the process was slow and dominated by setbacks. Standout leaders in the push for women's rights, especially women's suffrage, included Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. These women held meetings, spoke, and rallied to gain their equal rights in society. Another American, Clara Barton, did speak at some of these meetings; however, even though she was not present at all of the meetings, it is arguable that she became among the most influential people in gaining rights for American women. Barton did more than just speak. She led by example. In the classroom, on the battlefield, and in the boardroom, she opened the eyes of other Americans not only on what women could do but also what they should be permitted to do. Barton's perseverance in this male-dominated era not only led to the establishment of one of the most important and influential institutions in American history, but she also demonstrated to both men and women that women can succeed as leaders in society.


Clara Barton led an exemplary life in which she overcame the inequalities of society and paved the way for future women to prove their ability to men. Barton began her extraordinary life by building a school, providing free education for hundreds of youngsters. After being passed over for the headmaster position, Barton quit the school, but she didn't quit her drive to make a difference. Barton joined the federal government, and obtained the position of clerk in the patent office, the highest job any woman had ever achieved in government. When the Civil War broke out, Barton continued her service, but left the safety and comfort of an office to aid soldiers on the battlefield in a manner no woman had ever done before. The male soldiers initially rejected a woman performing nursing on the field of battle; after all, it had never been done before. But Barton wouldn't take no, the mission being too important for her to allow societal limitations to prevent her from providing needed care. She earned the name the "Angel of the Battlefield" by coming to the aid of wounded soldiers, eventually gaining official recognition for her contributions by being formally named the Superintendent of Union Nurses. After the war, Barton traveled across the seas and became educated in the service and support concept of the International Red Cross. Upon returning to the United States, she moved to establish a similar organization in America, one that not only aided soldiers, but also provided help to anyone who suffered from any disaster, including natural disasters such as fire, storm, or earthquake. Unlike any woman before, Barton went on to lead a massive organization, growing the American version of the Red Cross from a start-up to the foremost assistance organization in the country, one that would garner the attention and admiration of presidents, generals, and all segments of society.


Barton's Red Cross began providing aid to victims in natural disasters, first with the Michigan forest fires of 1881 and then the Johnstown, PA, flood in 1889. She continued her service to Americans in war by traveling to Cuba with supplies for victims in the Spanish American War. This start-up not only earned Congressional recognition, but Presidential acknowledgement as well, as evidenced by Theodore Roosevelt's call for the Red Cross to lead the major relief effort associated with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Service to American soldiers continued in every American war effort over the last century. In World War II alone, the Red Cross received more than $784 million in contributions, had more than 7.5 million volunteers, 71,000 nurses, provided more than 13 million pints of blood for military use, and shipped more than 300,000 tons of supplies overseas. The international body also took notice, ultimately changing its charter to include natural disasters during peacetime, as well as wartime assistance, all based on the pattern originally established by Barton. The American Red Cross has become the foremost humanitarian assistance organization in the world, with an annual budget of more than $3.5 billion, and fully capable of going wherever disasters strike to lend their unique form of compassionate aid. Blood services (the American Red Cross supplies roughly 44% of the donated blood in the United States), medical research, disaster preparation services, and disaster responses are synonymous with the American Red Cross, and often the first place the country looks when any disaster strikes. Such is the legacy of Clara Barton, a network of like-minded people who recognize that talking about helping others isn't enough; a commitment to action is what's necessary to ultimately make a difference. Barton's leadership by action serves as an inspiration to others and remains at the center of her legacy.


During Barton's era, many women attempted to advocate for an increase in women's rights. While Barton was definitely a supporter of these efforts, she didn't stop there. Barton led by example, forcing her way onto the battlefield and into the political sphere of influence, proving to men that women were fully able to take on tasks previously considered suitable only for men. Through her perseverance, Barton ultimately received support and approval at all levels of the male-dominated American society, up to and including the most powerful man in the country, the President of the United States. When Barton first appeared on Civil War battlefields to help wounded soldiers, her assistance was declined for no woman had ever appeared directly on the field of battle, in camps, or even field hospitals. As was her nature, Barton persisted, eventually gaining the trust of the military officials, and ultimately helping to coordinate the receipt of supplies from around the country. As Barton moved beyond nursing soldiers on the battlefield, she began to assist families in searching for missing soldiers. President Abraham Lincoln was so impressed by Barton and this effort that he personally authorized her to begin a letter-writing campaign through the official Office of Correspondence to continue this noble search. When the American Red Cross was formally established Barton was the only choice to be its leader, a function she performed for more than 20 years. This position of leadership and authority of a national organization was unprecedented for an American woman, long before Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress (1916), Kate Gleason became the first female president of a national bank (1917), Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean (1932), or Letitia Pate Whitehead became the first director of a major corporation (Coca-Cola, 1934). Barton paved the way for female leadership in American institutions, charging forward against all odds to ultimately obtain the tacit acknowledgment of the ruling males in the country that, indeed, a woman can and should be allowed positions of leadership. Barton's impact on the male perception of women as legitimate leaders and figures of authority is yet another part of Barton's amazing legacy.


Clara Barton's life was a testament to breakthroughs and accomplishments, never allowing societal norms and limitations to prevent her from achieving phenomenal and long-lasting successes. Barton was a hero to soldiers and their families, and to victims of disasters throughout the United States. The American Red Cross is her living legacy, having a positive impact on lives each and every day. But no less important was her impact on American perceptions of the capabilities of women, changing minds through her actions of men and women alike. Englishman Charles Kingsley once said, "Do noble things, not dream them all day long." Clara Barton didn't just dream, she did things, noble things, that establish her as one of the most impactful women on the lives of others in all of American history.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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