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Environment and History

Race, Class and Gender Disparities in Clara Barton's Late Nineteenth-Century Disaster Relief

Marian Moser Jones

Environment and History 17 (2011): 107-131. doi: 10.3197/096734011X12922359173014

This case study explores how civil society bodies developed to respond to US disasters in the context of the erratic nineteenth-century American state. It focuses on the American Red Cross, whose founder, Clara Barton, transplanted the Red Cross concept from its native Swiss soil to the US and changed the organisation's principal mission from assistance of wounded soldiers to disaster relief. Barton also transplanted the Geneva Conventions' ideal of 'neutrality' from the national fault lines of Europe to the social fault lines of the US. Just as the Conventions called for impartial medical assistance to wounded combatants regardless of national affiliation, Barton aimed to offer impartial medical and material aid to disaster sufferers regardless of race, gender or religion. This study comparatively examines the organisation's execution of these ideals in its response to two major US disasters, the 1889 Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania, and the Sea Islands Hurricane in South Carolina. Late nineteenth-century social ideologies of class, race and gender shaped public perception of these events and consequently the degree and type of assistance offered to the survivors. While Barton's ideal of neutrality somewhat mitigated this disparity, she was unable to counter or escape the pervasive ideologies of difference that led to cruel inequalities in state and societal responses to disasters. This study suggests that civil society organisations cannot mitigate such inequalities when not supported by an egalitarian state, and that they work more effectively when supplementing rather than supplanting the state's emergency social welfare functions.

KEYWORDS: Disparities, race, class, gender, disaster, Red Cross, neutrality, Geneva Conventions


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