Clara Barton’s Papers at the Library of Congress: Personalizing Women’s History Month

This blog post comes courtesy of Rebecca Newland, the 2013-2105 teacher-in-residence at the Library of Congress.

To make Women’s History Month come alive, consider focusing on the life and works of individual women from United States history. The Library of Congress collections include the suffrage scrapbooks of Elizabeth Smith Miller and her daughter, Anne Fitzhugh Miller; the plays of writer Zora Neale Hurston; items from dance innovators Katherine Dunham and Martha Graham; and the papers of American Red Cross founder Clara Barton.

To take just one of those as an example, the Clara Barton online collection includes letters as well as journals and diaries stretching from 1849, when she was 28 years old, to 1911, just before her death in 1912. Students can tap the power of this primary source collection to provide insight into the life of a historical figure who they may know about only from secondary reports of her life.

Teaching ideas:

Ask students to list what they know about Clara Barton, and then offer these lines from Barton’s March 11, 1852, journal entry, “there is not a living thing but would be just as well off without me[.] I contribute to the happiness of not a single object.”

Barton Diary

Clara Barton Papers, March 11, 1852

Engage students in primary source analysis of the entry, selecting questions from the Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Manuscripts to prompt observations and reflections. Ask students to list possible reasons for Barton’s feelings, and add to their thinking by providing the entire entry for the day. Encourage students to ask questions that might lead them to further investigate Barton’s life at this time.

Next, contrast Barton’s feelings with those expressed in this obituary published in The Washington Times on April 12, 1912.

Ask students to identify specifics from the obituary that contradict her belief that “there is not a living thing but would be just as well off without me.” Ask them to imagine and write her last diary entry, dating it the night before her death.

Once students have learned about Barton’s achievements from the obituary, invite them to dive into the collection of her papers, which include letters as well as the journals, to find entries related to milestones in her life and career. Students seeking additional insights might explore additional newspaper articles on Barton.

Ask:

  • What can you learn about Barton by reading her account of well-known events in her life?
  • What surprises you?
  • In what ways does her version differ from the “official” story as presented in secondary sources?
  • In what ways are they the same?
  • Why is it important to study primary sources?

Sharing the real and complex thoughts and feelings of Clara Barton, who history remembers as a great humanitarian, may help students feel connected to historical figures as people, not just objects of study.

How do you share the personal insights of historical figures with your students?

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