Human history is, generally, pretty dark. We like to focus on war, genocide, evil dictators, and other terrible moments and people of the past. Sometimes you need to look at history in a different way and find the beautiful moments that highlight humanity’s capacity for good. As the great Fred Rogers once instructed us to do when things look bad, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Throughout our history, plenty of people have demonstrated incredible courage to stand up and do anything they could to help others in desperate situations. Many of these brave helpers are women whose stories you may not be familiar with.
Probably the most famous name on this list, Clara Barton is best known as the founder of the American Red Cross. But do you know the story of how she founded it? She didn't just come up with the idea while lounging in her parlor one evening.
When the American Civil War broke out, Barton was a regular girl working a regular job in DC. She witnessed lots of injured soldiers arriving in town and being transported to local hospitals. Wanting to do whatever she could to help, Barton started visiting the soldiers to keep them company and bring them new clothes and other supplies. She quickly realized, however, that the worst need was out on the battlefields. Men were being horribly injured in the fighting and left there in the chaos to die before they had a chance to receive medical attention.
Barton spent some time collecting as many medical supplies as she could get her hands on and set out to the battlefields. Unlike the field surgeons that followed behind the units to come help once things had died down, Barton wasn't happy with making people wait. She forged ahead to the frontlines and assisted the wounded men right there in the heat of battle. She could have been killed or captured at any point, but it didn't really matter to her.
Even after the war ended, she continued her service in this manner and spent time in Europe working with the Red Cross networks over there until she decided to return home and found her own branch in the U.S. The American Red Cross continues to serve as a symbol of hope for people across the world and Barton's bravery lives on today.
Another incredibly brave nurse with a bit of a different tale of selflessness. Cavell was British but worked in Belgium at a Red Cross hospital at the outbreak of WWI. It wasn't enough for her to simply administer medical help to injured soldiers. She wanted to do something greater. When Germany occupied Belgium, they took over her hospital and insisted she only treat German soldiers. A fierce patriot, she outwardly obeyed but secretly started harboring British and French troops to keep them safe. She linked up with some important people outside of Belgium who had organized a network to safely transport people into the Netherlands, which was neutral territory during the war. Over the course of the next few months, Cavell successfully helped over 200 Allied soldiers escape the hands of the Germans.
In times of war, running an operation like this was a huge risk and everyone involved knew they would be in big trouble if they were caught. Cavell didn't care. When some of her partners in crime got arrested in 1915, she was also implicated. During her interrogation, she revealed everything and was sentenced to death for her crimes.
Edith Cavell was executed by firing squad at the age of 49. Ever the humanitarian, she forgave her executioners, but never would apologize for saving the lives of so many innocent, young men.
Scholl was a German college student in 1942 when she and her older brother Hans started a group with their friends called The White Rose. These kids were growing up under a fascist dictatorship and they could see what war was doing to the world around them. As college students, they couldn't do much to physically help anyone the way Edith Cavell and Clara Barton did, but they focused on what they knew best: passive resistance. The White Rose wrote and distributed anti-war and anti-Nazi literature to the people of Germany. They wanted to promote their peaceful ideas and hoped to encourage their fellow citizens to turn against the Nazi regime.
Unfortunately, the students were arrested in 1943 while trying to pass out their latest leaflets. Their anti-government views were radical enough to be deemed treason and the students were executed shortly after their arrest. Scholl was just 21 years old. Interestingly, this final leaflet they were caught with was smuggled out of Germany and eventually made it into the hands of Allied soldiers who made millions of copies and dropped them from the sky over Germany for everyone to see. Maybe Scholl didn't directly save any lives, but her legacy and influence were huge and she made more of a difference than she would ever know.
Sendler was a Polish nurse who worked in the infamous Warsaw Ghetto during WWII. The ghetto was home to thousands of Jewish families and served as a sort of holding area to keep them together before they could eventually be transported to death camps. The Nazis were concerned about the rampant diseases in the ghetto possibly spreading to the outside world so they sent nurses in to regularly perform Typhus checks. With the assistance of a larger network of people, Sendler used these trips to the ghetto as a way to covertly smuggle out small children any way she could—under her clothes, in ambulances, and even in suitcases. Once free, the kids were given false documents and sent to live safely with Polish families or in Catholic orphanages. Through all her trips to the ghetto, Sendler managed to rescue around 2,500 Jewish children, saving them from certain death.
This type of activity was extremely dangerous for all involved and the Nazis started to grow a little suspicious of Irena. She was arrested in 1943 and brutally tortured for information. She refused to give up the names of anyone that was involved with her scheme, so she was sentenced to death. Luckily, the other members of her network managed to bribe the guards to set her free and she was able to continue on with her work. She would go on to be arrested again for her political activism after the war, but nothing could deter her from doing what she believed was right. Sendler stayed in touch with many of the children she had rescued and they came to visit her as adults. She died quietly in 2008 and is now recognized as a hero.