Clara Barton circa 1865 by Mathew Brady, Washington, D.C.
There are at least two major centennial celebrations in the Washington DC area this year. This is the 100th year anniversary of the gift of cherry blossom trees from Japan to the U.S. (celebrated from March through the month of April in multiple events by the National Cherry Blossom Festival).
The second important commemoration is the 100th anniversary of the passing of Clarissa Harlowe Barton — Clara, as she wished to be called. Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, is one of the most honored women in American history for being a true pioneer as well as an outstanding humanitarian. As pioneer, she began teaching school at a time when most teachers were men. She was among the first women to gain employment in the federal government. As a pioneer and humanitarian, she risked her life when she was nearly 40 years old to bring supplies and support to soldiers in the field during the Civil War. Then, at age 60, she founded the American Red Cross in 1881 and led it for the next 23 years. Her understanding of the needs of people in distress and the ways in which she could provide help to them guided her throughout her life. By the force of her personal example, she opened paths to the new field of volunteer service. Her intense devotion to the aim of serving others resulted in enough achievements to fill several ordinary lifetimes. (From the American Red Cross website.)
I had the privilege of working for the Red Cross as head of communication in Los Angeles at one point in my career. I can personally attest that the humanitarian spirit on which Barton founded this venerable organization is still infused in the organization today, and that it attracts many, many workers, volunteers and donors through the power and reach of its services and the helping spirit in which they’re offered and delivered.
An April Washington Post Magazine feature explored the human side of Barton – specifically, the depression she battled her whole life. Ever a doer, she became restless when she couldn’t accomplish much. Her journals show that when faced with time on her hands, she became “cold and languid” rather than peaceful and calm. From this state, she rose to service in the Civil War. This same pursuit of accomplishment spurred her to create the American Red Cross.
We honor Clara Barton this year, and those courageous, innovative women who like her, fought in a man’s world, even a man’s war, to make their unconventional voices heard.
And pave the way for the rest of us.