Welcome back to our look at Ordinary Women, who were called by God to act bravely and make changes that impacted their world, and the lives of others for generations. We met Frances Perkins, who was instrumental in labor rights and Social Security. Last week, we visited the world of Esther, queen of Persia who stood up to racism and saved the Jewish people.
Today, we meet Clara Barton. From the very first time I learned about her, I have been fascinated by this woman who risked her life on the battlefield to help wounded men during the Civil War and who started the American Red Cross. I was probably in 4th or 5th grade when my grandmother sent me a biography of Barton. Her courage is inspiring. Early on, Barton realized, “we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10) She followed the path God set before her, even through danger and opposition.
Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born on Christmas Day 1821 in Oxford, MA as the youngest of 5 children. Her first experience with nursing was as a girl when she tended her older brother who had a head injury. At 15 years old, Clara became a teacher and in 1948 founded a free public school in New Jersey.
After that school board replaced her with a man, she moved to Washington DC, where she became a clerk for the U.S. Patent Office. Surprisingly, she was paid the same as the men in the office. She noted, “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.”
Then came the Civil War. Barton was appalled by the conditions for battlefield hospitals. Starting in 1862, she traveled with the Union Army bringing surgical supplies, cooking, and tending the wounded. The tale is told of Barton holding an injured soldier when a bullet ripped through her sleeve and into the man, killing him. She later pondered, “I have never mended that hole in my sleeve. I wonder if a soldier ever does mend a bullet hole in his coat?”
One essential service Clara performed was to record personal information of the soldiers. She wrote to family members of missing, wounded, or dead soldiers. Even after the War, she continued this task as Lincoln’s General Correspondent for the Friends of Paroled Prisoners. She could not do this alone and formed the Bureau of Records of Missing Men of the Armies of the United States. With her team of 12 clerks, she researched the status of tens of thousands of soldiers. In 1869, her final report to Congress noted that although 22,000 missing soldiers had been identified, she thought there were at least 40,000 more.
Barton then traveled to Switzerland for rest. It was there that she learned of the International Red Cross. She helped this group in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. Upon returning to the United States, she lobbied for the formation of an American branch, which happed when President Chester Arthur signed the Geneva Treaty in 1882. Originally the organization focused on disaster relief during the Johnstown, PA flood and after hurricanes in South Carolina and Texas.
Clara Barton had her own vision of what the Red Cross should be, which put her in conflict with others in the growing organization. In 1904 she resigned. She died 8 years later in Glen Echo, Maryland at 91.
She supported equal rights and was willing to help anyone regardless of race, gender, or station. She lived out the Galatians 3:28 reminder, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Her tireless work brought aid and comfort to men on the battlefield, to families in disasters, and helped provide supplies for first responders during her life and beyond.
Clara Barton inspired me when I first read about her as a child. She did not let being a woman in the mid 1800’s prevent her from following her path. She persevered, trusting that “God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished…” (Philippians 1:6)
Have you read about someone whose work inspired you?
Is there someone who you would like to emulate?
Do you have a vision for helping in some way that you haven’t acted on?
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