International Women’s Day – Clara Barton’s Red Cross

By Dr. Barbara Scruggs, Volunteer Contributor, American Red Cross

The earliest celebration of International Women’s Day was held as a Socialist political event in 1909 in New York City.  March 8 has been established to celebrate the civic, social, economic and political achievements of women internationally.

Since Clara Barton (1821-1912), an educator and humanitarian, founded the Red Cross in America, we thought we might share a few lesser-known facts about Ms. Clarissa.

She was actually named after a character from the novel Clarissa or the History of a Young Lady, which her aunt happened to be reading when she was born. She became a vegetarian at age six when she observed an ox being slaughtered for their food on the farm where she grew up in Oxford, Mass. Her brother David, who fell from a roof when Clara was 11, became her first “patient” as she cared for him for two years. She had been instructed to leech him twice daily, as that was fairly popular treatment at that time, only to see him recover much more quickly when a visiting doctor told her to stop the leeching.

She was truthfully quite shy as a child and a “phrenologist” told her parents that she should become a teacher, to help overcome that shyness. She was educated to teach and began teaching at age 16 locally, then, founded a school for workers’ children at her brother’s mill when she was 24. She later moved to Bordentown, New Jersey, and seeing so many kids that could not afford the “subscription schools”, she established the first free school there in 1852 and was able to increase attendance from 6 to 600 under her leadership. She managed to get funding from the community to build a ‘real school building’ but then she resigned when she discovered that the school had hired a man to be the principal at twice her salary. She is famously noted for saying, “I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay.”

When Clara left teaching, she was hired as a recording clerk, likely the first woman to work for the federal government, in 1854 at the US Patent Office in DC. She received the same pay as her male colleagues. Nonetheless, it has been postulated that her male counterparts spit their tobacco into her skirt folds. The Interior Secretary (not caring for working women) reduced Clara’s position to that of copyist, with lower salary and then President Buchanan eliminated her position completely. “I have an almost complete disregard of precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things have always been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent. I go for anything new that might improve the past. Ms. Barton had her copyist job reinstated by President Lincoln in 1860.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Clara quit her job and made it her mission to bring supplies to Union soldiers in need. She then became a nurse in-training as she tended to the basic and medical needs of the soldiers, which initiated a life-long career of aid to people in times of conflict and disaster. While she was working as a battlefield nurse, one of the soldiers she was tending told her, “This is the second time you saved my life.” He clarified that she had once been his teacher in New Jersey. Clara definitely risked her own life on the battlefield; one time a bullet went through her sleeve and killed the soldier behind her. She was reported to have never repaired that cape to remind her of her purpose. During her time within the battlefields, Clara assisted Frances Gage in helping to prepare slaves for lives of freedom. Although Clara was born into an upper-class citizenry, she did not care about her own personal comfort and was always striving to serve others, demonstrating a fierce dedication to her cause and a strong work ethic. After the war, in 1865, President Lincoln assigned her as General Correspondent for Friends of Paroled Prisoners. With the help of others, she helped locate at least 2200 soldiers, assisted in marking graves and testified in Congress about her experiences. The first National Cemetery was established in Andersonville, GA because of Clara’s work on identifying Confederate prisoners.

Clara was an ardent supporter of women’s suffrage. She was invited to a gathering of veterans and told them:

“You glorify the women who made their way to the front to reach you in your misery, and nursed you back to life. You called us angels. Who opened the way for women to go, and made it possible? Who but that detested clique [women’s suffrage] who through years of opposition, toil and pain had openly claimed that women had rights and should have the privilege to exercise them — the right to her own property, her own children, her own home, her just individual claim before the law, to her freedom of action, to her personal liberty. . . .Upon this, other women claimed the right and took the courage, if only to go to an army camp and drag the wounded men out of a trench and try to save them for their families, their country. And, soldiers, for every woman’s hand that ever cooled your fevered brow, stanched your bleeding wounds, gave food to your famishing bodies, or water to your parching lips, you should bless God for Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances D. Gage and their followers.”

Clara Barton’s birthplace was purchased in 1921 by the Women’s National Missionary Association of the Universalist Church with support from others and turned into a museum, filled with period artifacts to tell the heroine’s story. In 1932 a physician named Elliott Joslin who worked with diabetes treatment, was looking for “islands of safety” for children with diabetes. These women established the first fresh-air camp for girls with diabetes to learn how to develop healthier lifestyles and use the new treatment on insulin. This program, as the Red Cross directed, provided a hand-up, not a “hand-out” to people in need.

Today, Clara Barton’s Red Cross alone collects approximately 5.3 million units of blood, from roughly 3.1 million donors nationwide, and distributes over 7.7 million blood products for transfusion. This accounts for 40% of the nation’s blood supply. The American Red Cross continues to provide health and safety training, disaster services, services to Armed Forces, including connecting soldiers with their families, and coordinates with the International Red Cross serving other countries.

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