Building Communities Cassie Hodges  | February 22, 2017

The Woman Who Brought Us the Red Cross and So Much More

Despite the American Red Cross being one of the most notable aid organizations in the United States, less recognition is given to the woman behind its vision: Clara Barton.

Born in 1821, Barton began her working life as a schoolteacher. She found much success in this profession, but when a higher-paid, less-qualified man was named principal of her own school, she left teaching to work as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office. Despite meager records, it is likely that Barton was the first female full-time government worker. Barton was also the first female worker at the Patent Office (and perhaps in the entire U.S. government) to make the same salary as her male counterparts. Because of workplace politics and sexist attitudes, Barton was demoted to copyist and soon left the job.

At the request of her dying father, Barton began working to bring medical supplies to Union soldiers in 1862. Her dedication to helping the soldiers was quickly recognized, and she was known as the “lady in charge” and “Angel of the Battlefield” because of her close encounters with death on the battlefield. After the Civil War ended, Barton ran the Office of Missing Soldiers, which intended to identify those who were MIA or killed during the war. During this time, Barton became associated with women’s suffrage leader, Susan B. Anthony, and civil rights activist, Frederick Douglass.

After visiting the International Committee of the Red Cross, Barton proposed that the U.S. government establish its own Red Cross organization. President Chester Arthur, agreeing that the Red Cross could provide support during natural disasters, allowed Barton to open the American chapter of the Red Cross in 1881. She served as president of the organization for twenty-three years, resigning in 1904 at the age of 83.

Barton’s legacy includes international negotiations, identifying 22,000 missing soldiers, and numerous contributions to the women’s suffrage movement. Before she died in 1912, Barton wrote The Story of My Childhood, a short memoir about her early years.