Equality for Women is Progress for All

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Story by Sarah Rothman, Western Washington Region, International Services and Language Bank Manager

Saturday, March 8th marked International Women’s Day.  This day of honoring women made me think about the many women that have impacted my life by shaping the world I live in or influencing the person that I have become. I think about my mom, who is the hardest working and most loving person I have ever known. She taught me to be accepting of everyone and to see the best in people. I think of women that have mentored me and guided me on my journey as an emerging leader. I think of women I have met all over the world who face extraordinary challenges on a daily basis and find ways to persevere and become role models in their families and communities. I think of women who I have never met but who have sacrificed everything and fought battles to pave the way for generations of women to come. They knew all along that equality for women is progress for all.

It’s hard to imagine a world without these fierce and inspiring women. One woman, in particular, changed the world during her time on this earth. Her legacy has impacted my life in more ways than I will ever know.

You have probably heard the name Clara Barton.  She is remembered as many things: a teacher, a nurse, an entrepreneur, a humanitarian, and a female government employee. She is probably most well-known, at least among those I associate with, as the founder of the American Red Cross.

Clara was born on December 25, 1821 in Massachusetts. At an early age, she found ways to be of service to others and earned the reputation of being a hard worker. She started her career as a teacher, always demanding the same pay as her male colleagues. After opening and successfully growing New Jersey’s first free school, the board passed Clara over and instead, hired a man to be the head of the school. Resentful and frustrated, Clara left for Washington, D.C. and was hired on as one of the first female government employees, receiving a salary equal to her male counterparts. She worked as a patent clerk until a new commissioner demoted all female employees due to the popular opinion that women in the workplace deprived men of rightful employment. 

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When the American civil war broke out in 1861, Clara arranged to have a substitute work for half her salary while she drew the other half in order to pay rent, organize supplies, and gather support for affected soldiers. Clara spent many sleepless nights caring for soldiers on both sides of the war. Although women were not allowed on the battlefront, Clara gained the trust of officials and was allowed to serve troops on the frontline, earning herself the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield.” She nearly lost her life when a bullet passed through her sleeve and killed the wounded man she was attending.

After Clara’s brother and nephew were killed, she started searching for missing soldiers. With the support and endorsement of President Abraham Lincoln, Clara established the Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army (which I would highly recommend visiting if you are in D.C.), where she received and answered over 63,000 letters to families of soldiers and identified 22,000 missing men. She also traveled to locate and mark graves of 13,000 soldiers. Her initiative to bring about closure and reconnect loved ones was an early form of the Restoring Family Links program. 

During a visit to Europe, Clara learned about the International Red Cross movement and the Geneva Conventions. She returned to Washington, D.C. determined to bring this movement to the United States. She vigorously lobbied for the government to ratify the Geneva Conventions and to establish the American Red Cross. She added the concept of the Red Cross being involved in disaster relief, in addition to wartime responsibilities of the movement, which was later added to the Geneva Conventions as the “American Amendment.” After much resistance from multiple administrations and her continued persistence, the United States signed the international treaty and ratified laws that brought a shimmer of humanity to the horrors of war. Clara succeeded through her powers of persuasion during a time when women couldn’t even vote. As one of the few female voices in a male dominated world, Clara worked against impossible odds and proved that equality for women is progress for all. Clara Barton then founded the American Red Cross and became the first president of the organization.

Clara continued to face many challenges throughout her career as she ran the organization in the first couple decades of its existence. Despite these challenges, she impacted countless lives through her own efforts and those of the American Red Cross. Throughout her entire life, Clara was a fearless leader in the humanitarian movement as well as the movement towards equality for women. Although she hasn't been on this earth for almost a century, it’s hard to imagine a world without her legacy.