Oil painting of Clara Barton by Mathilde Leisenring, 1937.

Clara Barton lived an amazing life with extraordinary accomplishments, as a group of us recently learned on a tour retracing her steps (this will be the final post in the series). But it was an unlikely, even improbable, journey. She was painfully shy, suffered from anxiety and depression, and had to endure discrimination due to her gender, marital status, and age.

Out of these challenges, she became a teacher and started the first public school in New Jersey; was among the first women appointed to government work, serving in the U.S. Patent Office; served as a Civil War nurse; opened an Office for Missing Soldiers after the war; and remained an avid suffragette and abolitionist throughout her life.

She then started the American Red Cross at the age of 59 and convinced the International Red Cross to expand their services to disaster work. Resigning at age 82, Barton founded the National First Aid Society, which was responsible for the first aid kit.

So, what can we learn from Clara on how to achieve great impact?

  1. Determine the greatest needs of society in your time and take action. Although she spent countless hours journaling and writing letters, Clara Barton knew that what she accomplished would ultimately matter most. Determine how your own passions can meet the world’s needs and don’t sit idle with them. “When the lights have gone out and the flag is lowered, we will be remembered not by what we were, but by what we have done.”
  2. Stay positive in the face of adversity. Clara suffered from chronic depression. Many times she faced a struggle as to whether she would continue her activities or give in to her despondencies. She found that serving others less fortunate gave her the fuel she needed to carry on and stay positive. “I have always tried to recognize the things that made happiness and protect against the things that increase misery.”
  3. Never give up on something you truly believe in, especially when the “isms” get in the way. It is never too late. She had ideas all the time, and acted on them without regard for her gender or age, as in her founding of the American Red Cross at age 59, and 23 years later the National First Aid Society. And she never let the views and prejudices of others about what could be accomplished stand in her way. “The door that nobody else will go in at, seems always to swing open widely for me.”
  4. Don’t let fear impede your dreams. From her own internal demons of mental illness to the real dangers of war for her own safety, Clara knew that she had to make conscious choices every day to stare down the fear. “I may be compelled to face danger, but never to fear it, and while our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them.”
  5. Don’t obsess over what others may think of you. Clara wasn’t perfect and she had plenty of detractors, especially at the end of her life when many tried to push her aside from her role at the helm. If you stay true to your mission, if you are pure in your motivation to help others (as opposed to being self-serving), if you believe what you are doing will make a difference, then carry on. Listening to naysayers is sometimes helpful in providing evidence for continued improvement, but know the difference between helpful information and petty jealousies. “I may be compelled to live as a refugee, but I will not be treated as one.”
  6. Always be innovating. Clara always found ways of improving the status quo, especially when it came to saving or improving the lives of others. Without an organized way to account for missing soldiers after the war, she organized a system for capturing who was missing and what happened to them. She also created an organization that helped people prepare for disasters, rather than simply being victims. “It irritates me to be told how things have always been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent. I cannot afford the luxury of a closed mind.”
  7. Fight for the rights of those less fortunate than you. As one of the world’s greatest humanitarians, an abolitionist and a suffragette, she fought constantly for the rights of enslaved Blacks and women, including the right to vote. “I have an earnest desire to see women brought forward in every walk of life, and I rejoice whenever I see women in any position, where, by their talents and qualities of excellence, they are deserving.”
  8. Stand firm for equal pay for equal work. She quit her job as a teacher in New Jersey when they wanted to pay a man twice as much for the same work. Later when she secured a job at the patent office as a clerk for the same wage as the men working with her. When she went off to the battlefields, she brought in another woman to do a halftime job share for her job to keep the position and the salary. “I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay.”
  9. Always be networking. Understanding your own strengths and who else you need as key champions to further your cause is critical. Clara was great at acting on her beliefs, being in the field, and talking people into things through the power of her actions and words. But she always knew she needed the support of others, including donors, sponsors, military leaders, and politicians. Getting powerful people like Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and even President Lincoln behind her cause helped solidify her standing and opened doors that she herself could not open. “Everybody’s business is nobody’s business, and nobody’s business in my business.”
  10. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things. One person can indeed make change, whether it be to institute an organizational policy, sit on a board of directors, write a publication or even a book, invent a product to fill a need. If you can dream it, you can find a way to do it. Clara did it and so can you! “Though it is little that one woman can do, still I crave the privilege of doing it.” –Letter to I.W. Denney, seeking permission to go to the battlefront, March 30, 1862

By Susan B. Hassmiller, PhD, RN, FAAN, principal, SuLu Coaching & Consulting

(Quote sources: Thirty Best Quotes by Clara Barton: https://www.bookey.app/quote-author/clara-barton and https://www.azquotes.com/author/998-Clara_Barton#google_vignette and https://www.clarabartonbirthplace.org/the-american-red-cross/)