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Blood, Lots of Blood, Life Saving, Healthy Blood: Clara Barton and Gender Balanced Curriculum

I am thinking about Clara Barton and I am thinking about blood. Lots of blood. Probably hundreds of millions of pints of blood.

Barton had at least four different careers. She started as an educator, founding the first free (public) school in the state of New Jersey. She quit her position when the local school board decided to appoint a male principal to the school instead of its highly successful educator and founder, namely Barton. Moving to Washington D.C. she became the first woman appointed to a clerkship position for the US Patent office, receiving equal pay to her male colleagues and then, in a typical backlash, was demoted with a reduction in salary and then eventually fired.

But, her real calling came in 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, where she became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield”. She devoted the years of the war to not only nursing both Union and Confederate soldiers, but running a complex and often dangerous system for providing needed aide materials to various battlefronts to mend and heal wounded combatants. She procured and established fully equipped field hospitals to many of the famous battlefields of the war and must have been one of the most present figures in more of the famous locations of the Civil War than any other American.

After the war, she aided thousands of families searching for news of their missing soldiers who had fought in the war, became a famed public figure, speaking in public support for the suffragist movement and civil rights for African Americans. And, in her potentially most important role, she became the founder of the Red Cross in the United States, which as we know, is responsible for the complex network that keeps our fragile blood supply flowing from donor to those in need of healing. Her leadership and work shaped many of the ways we think about health care in the United States, and her impact and legacy on current American life are immeasurable. Might I even suggest that she is one of the most important historical figures in American History, period.

You have now read approximately three times as much on Clara Barton as I found articulated in four very popular high school American History textbooks currently in circulation.

If you were going to walk into a school today and wanted to have a meaningful content conversation surrounding gender, in what field would it be? Math? English? Science?

Typically, the conversation has been about math. Reams and reams of studies, research, application. And, for good reason. Women were largely locked out of this area of study as it was both designated as a man’s field of study, and also, what was the point? Why would women need to know math? The logic was that men do mathematics and women count. With the seismic changes in our culture due to the women’s movement, this is no longer our reality. There is still work to be done in this field of education; however, women in the United States do have greater access to advanced math tracks in schools and much more attention is being paid to the discriminatory classroom practices which lead to such issues as stereotype threat and diminished self-efficacy skills for young girls.

While access to and support for non-traditional fields of study for both women and men is critical, my argument is that the area that is most likely to lead to the greatest results in reducing gender bias and creating greater fairness in schools are in social studies and history curricula.

Clara Barton presents an American value system based on strength of conviction, generosity of spirit, of service, of caring, where her love of humanity transcended politics, ideology and conflict. When Barton is merely a footnote or even absent from the way we tell the story of our country’s history, those values are absent as well.

Where else do students hear the story of human history, what it means and, most importantly, who were its most important contributors? If student understandings of the role that BOTH sexes played in developing human civilization can be balanced, then there is a greater likelihood that children will perceive of their own role with greater potential impact. A greater respect for the contributions of both genders can therefore be more easily fostered and nurtured.

Stories and the portrayal of personalities which reflect values such as power, authority, domination become the central way we understand why history looks the way it does. As men write and define what history matters and who were its primary contributors, they are also framing false or vastly incomplete narratives of the societies in which we live today. In one gender and curriculum workshop I ran for Masters students in education, one student told me that he had been an undergraduate American History major and not one of his classes mentioned Clara Barton. Astounding.

As students find themselves in classrooms, after elementary school, with social studies and history taught as separate, compartmentalized subjects, the number of male teachers versus female teachers is approximately 70%-30%. The very lens that students see history is not only written by men, but taught by them as well.

Interestingly, student assessment results show that while male students perform better on knowledge acquisition tests in the fields of government, history and civics, women tend to excel over men in civics skills exams. Men may know more history, but women seem to have a greater grasp of the implications and impact of principles and rights within a Democracy.

Clara Barton presents an American value system based on strength of conviction, generosity of spirit, of service, of caring, where her love of humanity transcended politics, ideology and conflict. When Barton is merely a footnote or even absent from the way we tell the story of our country’s history, those values are absent as well.

And finally, Adrienne Rich put it best when discussing what it must be like to be a young female hearing a one sided, male version of American History.

When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Adrienne Rich, 1984

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