The Clara Barton Museum Blog

Bully For Clara?

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Recently it is reported in the news that workplace bullying is a reality, viz. a report that found that a former lineman for a professional football team was bullied by coworkers with the full support of the coaching staff.  The man accused of bullying the lineman claims that what happened was not bullying but a method of toughening up a player to make them more aggressive.  The investigator wrote that besides racial and sexual slurs aimed particularly at the player, his family was also threatened.  That seems to be a peculiar way of toughening one up.  It is sad to see that bullying is not just taking place in schools, but in the workplace as well.  
Workplacing bullying at its worst!
One may wonder, what does this have to do with Clara Barton?  She was famously bullied while working at the Patent Office in the 1850s.  She was the first woman to receive a permanent position at the same rate of pay as her male coworkers.  Most biographers cover the period without telling the whole story.  They wrote that the men were jealous of Barton’s position and her pay since women were considered second class citizens unable to perform the tasks given men.

As Paul Harvey used to say, “and now, the rest of the story.”  In an interview with Lenora Halstead in 1890, Miss Barton gives some details of her work that shed a good deal of light about how her co-workers treated her.  She told Ms. Halstead, 

The carriage of the Comm[issioner] of Patents called with the request that I sh[oul]d get in & drive down to see him. It was a most unusual thing for a woman to go to one of the Dep[ar]t[ment]s; in those days there was not a woman on their payrolls not one.  There were a few women, the d[aughte]rs and widow of a man who had died who did his work & rec’d pay in his name, but this was substitution and was almost unknown.  However, I got into the carriage & went to see the Comm. as requested.  In his room the first person I saw was an old friend of my father’s who had known me from childhood and who welcomed me cordially. The Comm. asked me, he said after he had presented me, if I know of a man of perfect integrity & trustworthiness, whoed [sic] do some important work for him in finding out  where frauds had been perpetrated in his accounts, and I told him I knew of no such man, but I did know a woman who c[oul]d exactly serve him and he told me to send for her, & so hereyou are. I tried to disclaim his praises but the Comm w[oul]d  not listen to me & only asked me if I w[oul]d take the place? I said, ‘Why, I don’t know why I sh[oul]dn’t, yes, I will.” “Very well,” said he, “I am delighted to hear it now when you can come?” “There you choose, said I. “Can you stay now?” “Certainly, “ and I took off my bonnet & shawl & staid [sic].  I worked in that office from that time; I found the frauds, & my service was the first woman’s name to go on the payrolls.  It made a great commotion.  The clerks; they knew what it meant, & they tried to make the place too hard for me.  It wasn’t a pleasant experience, in fact, it was very trying, but I thought perhaps there was some question of principle involved & I lived it through.

Now there’s the rub– Barton stated that she was brought into the Office to investigate fraud and she found some, certainly leading to the dismissal of clerks and examiners.  The Commissioner, Judge Charles Mason, became famous as the man who reformed the Patent Office.  Evidently, Barton conducted the investigation.  It seems reasonable that these clerks were not only jealous of Barton’s unusual position, but she also posed a direct threat to their employment.  That threat would certainly cause some men to react by making Barton’s life miserable.  Perhaps Barton was not the sweet innocent victim of abuse that writers have made her out to be.  It does not excuse the abuse, but it does give a clearer understanding of the situation at the time.  Barton had every right to feel justified in her work exposing illegal activities in the Office, but leaving that tidbit of information out implies Barton did nothing to cause the abuse.
I have to admit, it may well be that this story lost credibility with interpreters because of the lateness of the interview.  Barton was 68 years old in March of 1890.

Unfortunately, there was nothing Barton could do about the bullies, but it is a shame Mason did not do anything to stop it, or some other man at the Patent Office.  Evidently, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, that is not unusual and sometimes, as in the case in football, it appears even conducted or sanctioned by leadership.  The institute points out that workplace bullying actually reduces the productivity and revenue for an organization that does nothing to stop it.

For more information about today’s problems with workplace bullying, go to

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