In Honor of International Women’s Day, We Remember Clara Barton

Story by Ali Hargrave / Red Cross Cascades Region

Behind every successful philanthropic effort is an individual who cared enough to enlist others on behalf of a cause they knew was worthy.

For the American Red Cross, this individual was Clara Barton.

Circa1865. Matthew Brady portrait of Clara Barton.

Today and each day, we celebrate women around the world for their amazing feats, their perseverance, strength, and their determination to #ChooseToChallenge.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is rooted in challenging the world, because “a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change,” (

Clara Barton is a woman who, against many odds, envisioned a better world by daring it to spend more time focusing on and caring for others’ wellbeing. 

Clara’s life is full of examples of opening and clearing paths for women after her, as well as those she served during her lifetime.

She became among the first women to teach in school, one of the first women to become an employee of the federal government, among the first women inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and she was among the first persons to perceive and respond to immediate soldier needs at the beginning of the Civil War.

1889. Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Upon her arrival in Johnstown, Miss Barton immediately set up Red Cross headquarters in a tent on Prospect Hill overlooking the stricken valley. Another Red Cross faction, from Philadelphia, headed by a Dr. Pancoast, also arrived and set up hospital facilities in tents.

After convincing leaders in government to allow her voluntary services and medical supplies to head to the battlefield, where she recognized help was needed most, she wasn’t satisfied pulling up only after help was needed and instead ordered her drivers to stay ahead of military medical units.

Quickly becoming known as the “Angel on the Battlefield,” Clara cared for her “soldier boys” even in the wake of danger, in which she wrote, “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.”

After her time on the battlefield, Clara answered 63,000 letters in search of missing men, identified over 22,000 missing men, and named the graves of almost 13,000 men during her Office of Correspondence with Friends of Missing Men of The United States Army initiative.

Although Clara claimed to be satisfied after her work in the Civil War, the rest of her life illustrated a desire and persistence to see change occur in the lives of those who so needed it.

June 2, 1902. St. Petersburg, Russia. Original photograph presented to the Davenport, Iowa Chapter of the American Red Cross by Major Harry F. Evans on behalf of Mrs. Nathaniel French at the fiftieth anniversary luncheon, May 20, 1931. Left to right: B. F. Tillinghast, Miss Clara Barton, Admiral N. Kaznakoff.

After diligently pursuing the approval of three presidents to eventually see the United States become a part of the International Red Cross, Clara also convinced those in Geneva to sign off on the “American Amendment” to the Geneva Treaty (The Red Cross Treaty) calling on the Red Cross to expand efforts to include those affected by natural disasters instead of just victims of wartime. 

What we recognize as the International Red Cross and the American Red Cross today would not exist without the challenges Clara Barton elicited to the world around her. Her acute perception of human need and the desire to do something about it is a legacy that not only lives on through an outstanding organization but also through the many volunteers that carry out our mission.

Clara’s humanitarian philosophy is an inspiration and the cornerstone of The Red Cross, “You must never so much think as whether you like it or not, whether it is bearable or not; you must never think of anything except the need, and how to meet it.”

Thank you, Clara, for pursuing the needs of others uniquely and permanently imprinting this passion into the hearts of so many others.