Clara Barton was born on Christmas Day, 1821, in Oxford, MA, into a Universalist family.
She was living in Washington, D.C. when the U.S. Civil War landed at her doorstep. She began nursing wounded soldiers in her sister's home, visiting the army camps, and was soon orchestrating the delivery of supplies from numerous Ladies Aid societies. After a short time, she began working on the front lines, delivering supplies and tending to wounded soldiers. Despite occasional bouts of illness, she continued her efforts, working alongside a host of women volunteers that included Dorothea Dix, Frances Dana Barker Gage, and Mary Livermore. Frances Gage became a close friend, and when Barton expressed frustration at the barriers women faced in her line of work, Gage introduced Barton to the women's rights movement. Barton and Gage also discussed their shared Universalist faith, which they both credited with influencing their work.
After the Civil War ended, Barton visited Europe and learned of the International Red Cross, an organization which had been established by the Geneva Convention. She returned home determined to start an American chapter, struggling against the prevailing political mood to advocate for the organization. In 1881 the American Red Cross was founded, but the first few years of the organization's existence were difficult. Barton's own health was often compromised by overwork, and although she was a passionate advocate for the agency's relief work, her lack of administrative skills often caused problems. She persevered, however, and served as the President of the Red Cross until 1904, when she retired at the age of 83. She died eight years later in 1912.
Here is an excerpt of a letter to her friend Frances Gage, written in 1870:
My Dear Fannie,
I can never see a poor mutilated wreck, blown to pieces with powder and lead without wondering if visions of such an end ever flitted before his mother's mind when she washed and dressed her fair skinned baby. Woman should certainly have some voice in the matter of war, either affirmative or negative and the fact that she has not this should not be made the ground on which to deprive her of other privileges. She shan't say there shall be no war—and she shan't take any part in it when there is one, and because she don't take part in war, she must not vote, and because she can't vote, she has no voice in her government, and because she has no voice in her government, she isn't a citizen, and because she isn't a citizen, she has no rights, and because she has no rights, she must submit to wrongs, and because she submits to wrongs, she isn't anybody, and "what does she know about war—" and because she don't know anything about it, she mustn't say or do anything about it."