The Winding Career Path that Led Clara Barton to Become America’s Most Famous Nurse: WHO Year of the Nurse and the Midwife

American and Guinea stamps honoring Clara Barton

American and Guinea-Bissau stamps honoring Clara Barton

Clara Barton eventually became America’s most famous nurse and the founder of the American Red Cross, but she began her career as a teacher.  When she was a child, a phrenologist suggested teaching as a means for Clara to overcome her shyness. (Phrenology was an early forerunner to psychology.) And it wasn’t like there were a lot of other professional options available to a woman of her era.

She got a teaching job as a teen, as soon as she finished her own schooling.  After about a decade as a teacher, she wanted to go back to school, but couldn’t find a college that would accept women. So she re-enrolled in high school, this time at a more prestigious one than the one she attended as a kid, and tried to keep her actual age quiet.

After High School Take 2, she moved to Bordentown, New Jersey, where she had neither acquaintances nor job prospects. She asked about teaching jobs, only to learn that there weren’t any; there weren’t any schools! About half of the kids were privately tutored and the other half wandered the streets feral all day. Ironically, the town did have a school board, although they had nothing to govern. Clara approached the chair with a proposal:

“I want to open a public school in Bordentown and teach it myself,” she told him.

Peter [the school board chair] frowned. “These boys are renegades, many of them more fit for the penitentiary than school. A woman could do nothing with them. They wouldn’t go to school if they had the chance,” he told Clara.

Clara was aware that some of the boys had been expelled from improvised living room classrooms but she did not fault the kids. She had determined that their teachers had “no fitness for the position and no ability for instruction beyond their own limited knowledge gleaned years before in some similar manner. When this limit was reached, usually made visible in mathematics, and the pupil became aware of it, he was no longer an agreeable or even a safe member of the school. In fact, as such he became an undesirable citizen and was graduated into the street in disgrace.”

These same undereducated private tutors would bitterly oppose any competitor luring away tuition-payers with free services, Peter warned Clara, “and the parents would never send them to a pauper school.”

“Pauper school” was local parlance for public schools.  A few years back, the New Jersey Legislature had appropriated funds for public education, but in Bordentown, Peter explained, public sentiment equated free education with degradation. The only previous attempt at opening a public school had failed.

“You would have the respectable sentiment of the entire community against you,” he warned her. “A strong man would quail and give way under what he would be compelled to meet, and what could a woman—a young woman—and a stranger do?” asked Peter, but the question must have been hypothetical, because he did not wait for an answer. Continuing on, he commended Clara for her good intentions while encouraging her to forget the whole matter.

At last he paused for breath. Apparently winded from the strain of listing so many obstacles, he pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his forehead.

Clara waited in silence a little longer, just to be sure he really was finished, before she said, “Thank you, Mr Suydam. Shall I speak?”

Peter laughed. “Certainly Miss Barton,” he said. “I will try to be as good a listener as you have been.”

Clara thanked him for his sincerity and concern for her well-being before she made her case:

I’ve been a teacher of the public schools of New England for years. That is my profession, and if entered in the long and honored competitive list of such, I do not suppose that in either capacity, experience, or success I should stand at the foot.

I’ve studied the character of these boys and have intense pity for, but no fear of them.

As for exclusion from society, I have not sought society, and could easily dispense with it…I am not here for that. …My only desire is to open and teach a school in Bordentown, to which its outcast children could go and be taught.

Clara proposed a trial period—the board need only commit to two terms—but that was not enough to sway the chairman, so Clara offered an extreme concession: she would work without pay if the board would just supply the classroom.

That is when Peter offered to bring her proposal to the school board.

The board approved her proposal—a free teacher was a great deal, after all—and her school was so successful that they eventually decided to build a schoolhouse, hire more teachers and (phew!) give Clara a salary.

But it was less than half of the salary of the male principal they hired to oversee the female teachers at the school Clara had started. They offered Clara the position of “female assistant.” She quit.

Clara left New Jersey and moved to Washington, DC. She still wanted a college education, and since no one would give her one she decided to take care of it herself by studying independently at the Library of Congress. She went there every day until the day the carriage of Charles Mason, the commissioner of patents, arrived unexpectedly at her doorstep. It took her to a government building, where her congressman was waiting for her.

“The commissioner asked me if I knew a man of perfect integrity and trustworthiness who could do some important work for him in finding out where fraud had been perpetrated on his accounts,” he told her.  “And I told him I knew of no such man but I did know a woman who could exactly serve him and he told me to send for her and so here you are.”

Clara became the first woman on the agency’s payroll. Charles Mason was ahead of his time.  He believed in equal pay for equal work and soon hired other women in addition to Clara. His boss, on the other hand, President Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of the Interior, Robert McClelland, did not share this enlightened attitude. When he realized what was going on at the Patent Office, he demoted the women from clerks to copyists, paid on commission with no regular salary. The secretary wanted to fire the women altogether, but eventually yielded to the commissioner’s protests. Mason couldn’t give them their old titles back, but backhandedly paid such unusually handsome commissions that Clara’s income remained the same.

That is where she was working when the Civil War began, close enough to the troops to join other volunteers in delivering supplies and nursing the wounded when they arrived from battle. She sent word to friends and charities in Massachusetts that she could pass along donations, and they sent so many that she moved out of her apartment into a warehouse where she could store them.  When that filled up, she rented another. Wounded soldiers often arrived in the city after infection had set in, when it was too late to save them. Clara had an idea to provide first aid right on the battlefield, but couldn’t find an army official who would let a woman on the front lines. Most thought it would be too dangerous for a woman; some thought a woman would require more help than she would give.

“I cannot rest satisfied. It is little that one woman can do, still I crave the privilege of doing that,” Clara declared.

That changed on the day she met Colonel Daniel Rucker.

On the day she appeared at Colonel Daniel Rucker’s office, the room was crowded.  He had created a makeshift waiting area by dividing his desk from the rest of the space with a little fence with a gate. Seated on the waiting side, Clara could see him frantically responding to petitioners, sending off aids and giving orders in a non-stop stream of action.

He eventually noticed Clara sitting among the crowd and called out gruffly, “Well, what do you want?”

Clara stood up. Startled, words were not forthcoming. Tears came instead.

To Clara’s good fortune, the colonel had a soft spot for crying women and the gruffness melted. “Why, what’s the matter?” he asked. “Don’t cry. Come in here and sit down until you get over this and don’t be frightened. I will do anything I can for you.”

As Clara walked over to the desk, the colonel continued dispatching others at lightning speed.  When she reached it, he turned to her and said, in a much gentler tone, “Now tell me all about it. What is it you want?”

“I want to go to the front,” Clara responded.

“The front? That’s no place for you. There’s going to be a battle and you are much better away.”

“But that is why I want to be there. I want to go to the front.”

“But what for? Have you a father or brother there?”

“No. I’ve got nobody there.”

“Then why do you want to go?”

“I have some things I want to take to the soldiers,” she said.

“What kind of things?”

“Oh, every kind of thing.” Her answer was too vague, but the busy colonel hurried on anyway.

“Well, how much is there of it?” he asked as he turned to his desk.

“I am sure I can’t say, sir.”

“Will it take a wagon?” he asked as he fussed with his papers.

“Oh yes, sir. It will take more than a wagon.”

”How many then? Where have you got it?”

“I have it in my house, sir,” said Clara. “And in three warehouses.”

That got his attention. He stopped looking at his desk and stared at Clara. “Three warehouses? Heavens!”

“Yes, sir,” agreed Clara.

“Well, take this.” He passed her a paper. “It’s an order for six wagons and the men to load them and here is your permit to go to the front and God bless you.”

On the battlefield, Clara and her team proved their value to the troops. The press reported their exploits and Clara didn’t have to beg for permits again.  Other women soon followed.

“And if you chance to feel that the positions I occupied were rough and unseemly for a woman,” said Clara. “I can only reply that they were rough and unseemly for men.”


The quoted content in this post are excerpts from my upcoming book, Ask a Suffragist: Stories and Wisdom from Activists Who Built a Movement. You can learn more about it and pre-order it here.

The first book in the Ask a Suffragist series, Ask a Suffragist: Stories and Wisdom from America’s First Feminists, is available now.  You can learn more about it and buy it here.

Learn more about the Ask a Suffragist project at askasuffragist.com

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at aprilyoungb.com.

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4 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    That was a fun read! I had not known anything about Clara Barton’s early years before nursing. What a model of persistence and ingenuity.

  2. Spunky says:

    Wow! I thought I left a comment, but realized I didn’t.

    I love this!!!!

    Thank you so much, April. I seriously can’t wait to read your next book. I’ve pre-ordered it, and am so grateful for all of the writing you do for all of this! Clara is awesome!!!

  3. Heather says:

    April your knowledge astounds me. I loved learning all this!

  4. EmilyCC says:

    I can’t wait to see your next book! What a fun excerpt!

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