Tuesday, July 1, 2014

We all need to be reminded about the inspiring feminist Clara Barton

During my trip to Washington, D.C. I took a trip out to the town of Glen Echo, Maryland with my mom and my kids. It's a delightful place, featuring a park area with artist yurts and a children's playground and a theater for kids and a puppet theater and a merry-go-round, etc. etc. I highly recommend it. This is a place that has been a "destination" for so long that it used to be an amusement park, and before that it was a "chautauqua." It was also the center of civil rights protests in 1960, so you can investigate that if you are curious, because it's very interesting.

It is also the site of Clara Barton's house (here's a good blog article on the house, where I found this photo).

If you go there, you can wait on the bench out front and take a tour of the house. The information I'm sharing here is paraphrased from the verbal presentation we got during our tour from a lovely guide by the name of Clara Ferrari.

You probably learned about Clara Barton in elementary school. I couldn't say if I did, because I didn't remember anything clearly. She is, quite simply, one of the most inspiring badass feminists ever, and the ultimate testament to how much a person can learn on the job. She went from teen elementary school teacher, to founder of the New Jersey public schools, to Civil War nurse, to founder of the American Red Cross and the First Aid Society.

Clara Barton started out as a teacher in her local school at the age of seventeen, figuring out how to teach while doing it. When she realized that there were no free schools in the state of New Jersey, she went there and offered to start one. She was given a warehouse space totally unsuited to running a school, and on her first day had 6 students. They attended for the morning, and then because there was no cafeteria facility, she had to send them home for lunch, imagining they might never come back. When she reconvened school at 2pm, they had brought 14 friends back with them. By the end of that year the school had 600 students. Clara Barton was ideally suited to become the school's principal, having built it from the ground up, but there was one problem. I'm sure you can guess what it was.

She was a woman. So the principal's job was given to a man, and she left.

"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." (all italicized quotes are from this quote site)

She was excited when the civil war came along. Not happy about it, of course. But she saw it as an opportunity.

"The conflict is one thing I've been waiting for. I'm well and strong and young -- young enough to go to the front. If I cannot be a soldier, I'll help soldiers."

She started a letter-writing campaign asking for supplies for the troops before the war even officially got started, and managed to gather three warehouses full of supplies. Then she went to the powers that be for the North and said she'd give them the supplies if they let her go serve as a nurse on the front. The powers that be said, basically, "You can't serve as a nurse on the front. You're a woman." She came back with, "Okay I guess you don't need these three warehouses full of stuff, then."

That was how Clara Barton got to go and serve as a nurse on the front. She was never trained as a nurse, but again, learned on the job. She faced horrors and death. She even narrowly missed death herself several times. Here are two more quotes from the same site:

"A ball had passed between my body and the right arm which supported him, cutting through the sleeve and passing through his chest from shoulder to shoulder. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to his rest. I have never mended that hole in my sleeve. I wonder if a soldier ever does mend a bullet hole in his coat?"

"I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it, and while our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them."

She became so famous for her activities during this time that she was a household name, and when the war was over, people from all over started writing to her and asking whether she had seen their missing loved ones. The therefore spent a number of years finding missing soldiers - either figuring out where they were after the war, or finding witness accounts of their deaths, to bring closure to their families. As this site explains, "Her search concluded at the end of 1866 with over 22,000 men identified."

To take a break after this exhausting activity, Clara Barton went to Europe. This is where she encountered the International Red Cross organization, which at the time was all about doing what she had done in the Civil War - nursing and caring for people in war time. She served during the Franco-Prussian war, came out alive, and returned to the United States, where she asked the US government to start a branch of the Red Cross. She had to lobby for ten years before it actually happened. Clara Barton became the president of the American Red Cross. Her home in Glen Echo was built for her during this time, because the builders, who were residents of Glen Echo, thought her presence would be prestigious for their community. The house is huge, and the large entry hall is basically all closets. (The house has more than 500 closets.) It was easy to open a wall, pull out emergency supplies, and take them to wherever they were needed.

This brings me to Clara Barton's essential innovation in the activities of the Red Cross. She was the first person to see that the Red Cross could serve during natural disasters and other peacetime emergencies rather than just in wartime. Not only that, but she was the one who brought peacetime activities to the international organization as well. She changed the whole world, and served as president of the American Red Cross until she was in her 80's. Then, in 1904, she was forced to resign as president by people who felt she was too old and and too old-fashioned and, yes, too female to continue as president of the still-healthy, still-growing organization. She resigned, and promptly went on to establish the National First Aid society. So if you have a first aid kit in your house, or your car, or your workplace, you have Clara Barton to thank for it.

I walked out of that place inspired to tell everyone I knew about Clara Barton and her incredible life and achievements, and also to make sure I made a difference in the world. I hope you may feel similar inspiration. I feel certain that stories will emerge from this experience.


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