‘Angel of the Battlefield’ Clara Barton was a Vocal Advocate for Women’s Suffrage

August 26, 2020Matt Fratus
Clara Barton coffee or die

On the morning of Aug. 26, 1920, US Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby added his signature to the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. While the amendment was originally ratified Aug. 18, 1920, Colby’s signature finalized the century-long fight in what became known as the women’s suffrage movement. The day Colby signed, the New York Times reported that anti-suffragists made a last-ditch effort to halt the motion the day prior in the District of Columbia Supreme Court.

The Tennessee Legislature sent the certificate of ratification via the US Postal Service to Washington, and after the anti-suffragists’ effort to declare a temporary injunction failed, the certificate arrived at 4 a.m. Colby signed it four hours later. 

The historic event was the culmination of decades of women’s rights advocacy from leaders such as Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Katy Stanton, and the only female Medal of Honor recipient, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a Civil War veteran.

Clarissa “Clara” Barton, who was a battlefield nurse during the Civil War and is best known as the founder of the American Red Cross, was another vocal leader in the women’s suffrage movement.

Clara Barton women's suffrage coffee or die
Clara Barton in 1866. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Barton was born on Christmas Day in 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts, the youngest of five siblings and the daughter of an affluent farmer. When her older brother became seriously ill, she helped nurse him back to health, her first act of treatment as a nurse. She worked as a teacher from age 17, founding a small school for the children whose parents worked on her brother’s mill. Later she established the first free public school in Bordertown, New Jersey, but resigned in frustration when she learned a male teacher was given twice her salary.

Barton vowed to never work in teaching again until she had a fair wage. She shifted careers and moved to Washington in 1854 for a job as a recording clerk. There she received equal pay to her male counterparts in the US Patents Office. A trailblazer in every sense, she was among a very small pool of women to work for the federal government. When the American Civil War began, she quit her job upon hearing the news that Union Army soldiers from the 6th Massachusetts Militia — many of whom she knew personally — were wounded in a riot in Baltimore.

Barton provided medicine and assistance to the wounded soldiers, despite the backlash she received for not having the paperwork granting her such access. US Surgeon General William Hammond recognized her capabilities and secured her the exclusive access in 1862 to serve as a nurse within military lines. Barton arrived at a field hospital near the location of the Battle of Cedar Mountain at midnight with a wagon full of medical supplies. An overwhelmed field surgeon coined Barton The Angel of the Battlefield,” a nickname that carried through to her medical career.

Clara Barton first-aid coffee or die
Clara Barton established the National First-Aid Society in 1905 and helped make first-aid kits similar to this one in 1919 more common. Photo courtesy of the Clara Barton Museum.

She cared for the sick and wounded in South Carolina and prepared food and passed out mail to soldiers in the trenches during the Morris Island campaign. She was appointed “lady in charge” of US Union Army hospitals in 1864.

Continuing her humanitarian work after the war, Barton ran the the Office of Missing Soldiers for four years, answering 63,183 letters from the loved ones of missing troops and helping to locate 22,000 missing soldiers.

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

Barton discovered there were others like her when she learned the International Red Cross was established in 1864. She founded the American Red Cross in 1881 at age 59. Her efforts pioneered volunteer service, and for the next 23 years she led her team in assisting life-saving efforts and disaster relief for floods, fires, and hurricanes. The organization also stressed the importance of having first-aid kits readily available either on the battlefield or in an emergency situation. 

Clara Barton American Red Cross coffee or die
In 1902, Clara Barton led the U.S. Delegation to the 7th International Conference of the Red Cross in St. Petersburg, Russia. She was photographed with B.F. Tillinghast, who accompanied her to Russia, and Admiral N. Kaznakoff. Photo courtesy of the American Red Cross.

Outside of her dedication to medicine, Barton also delivered lectures and speeches during the women’s suffrage movement. 

“When our armies fought at Cedar Mountain, I broke the shackles and went into the field — five days and nights with three hours’ sleep, a narrow escape from capture, and some days of getting the wounded into hospitals at Washington,” she later reflected during one of her speeches during the women’s suffrage movement. “And if you chance to feel that the positions I occupied were rough and unseemly for a woman, I can only reply that they were rough and unseemly for men.”

Barton, among other trendsetting women vying for the right to vote, came from varied career fields and backgrounds, and they changed a nation. One hundred years ago, the suffragettes paved the way for women to vote and so much more.

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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