Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Clara Barton, "Angel of the Battlefield"

Clara Barton (died 12 April 1912)

Born on Christmas Day in 1821, Clarissa Harlowe Barton--who preferred to be called Clara--was an active professional woman throughout her life. 

Clara Barton, c. 1865,
photographed by Matthew Brady
Barton's first career was as a teacher; beginning in 1838, she taught in various schools for twelve years, where she demanded--and received--wages equal to those of male teachers. In 1852, after two years of academic work at the Clinton Liberal Institute, she opened a school of her own in Bardentown, the first "free" school in New Jersey. (As a free school, there were no fees assessed students--the school was paid for by the public.) 

Frustrated by a board that hired a man to run the school (because it was inappropriate for a woman to hold an administrative position), Barton turned to a new career--in 1855, she moved to Washington D.C. and went to work for the U.S. Patent Office--at first she worked as a recording clerk and was paid the same wages as her male colleagues. But because of opposition to a woman holding a "man's" job and receiving a "man's" salary, Barton's position was reduced and, in 1857, she and other female employees were dismissed. 

Barton returned to Washington and the patent office after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1861. But she entered into the profession for which she is most well known during the Civil War, where she gained permission in 1862 to do more than just send bandages to the front lines (a typical, though essential, job for women, who organized themselves into societies to provide supplies for soldiers and to do some caring for the sick and wounded). Barton became a nurse on the front lines of battle, working in a number of field hospitals.

In 1865, after the end of the war, Barton set up the Office of Correspondence with the Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army, where she received the queries from the family and friends about missing loved ones; by the time the office was closed, she had responded to more than 60,000 letters and helped to locate information about 22,000 missing men. She also helped in setting up a cemetery at Andersonville Prison, a notorious prison of war camp in Georgia.

During a trip to Europe in 1869, Barton was introduced to the International Red Cross and worked under its auspices in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. After she returned to the United States, Barton began her efforts to create an American branch of the Red Cross. She was ultimately successful, and she became the first president of the newly formed American Red Cross in 1881. She led the organization for the next twenty-three years.

During these years she also worked as a superintendent for a woman's "reformatory prison" (in Massachusetts) and gave speeches on behalf of women's suffrage (she was a friend of Susan B. Anthony), not only attending suffrage rallies but also giving speeches.
Clara Barton in 1904,
as she ended her term as president of
the American Red Cross

Barton published her own accounts of the Red Cross in two separate volumes, The Red Cross-In Peace and War (1898) and The Story of the Red Cross: Glimpses of Field Work (1904). She published an autobiography, The Story of My Childhood, in 1907.

Barton's home in Glen Echo, Maryland, where she lived for the last fifteen years of her life, is now a National Historic Site. You can take a virtual tour, access biographical material and timelines, see full transcripts of primary-source documents, and download a variety of images, including the ones used in this post, by clicking here.

Although there are many biographies of Barton written for children, there seems to be no recent full-length biography for adult readers. Elizabeth Brown Pryor's Clara Barton, Professional Angel (1987), is still in print, however. Stephen B. Oates's work on Barton during the Civil War is also available:  A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War (1994). In addition to the information available via the Clara Barton National Historic Site web page (above), there is an excellent entry at the American Red Cross website.

For information about Barton's Office of Missing men, click here

The Clara Barton National Historic Site