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Boardman, Mabel (1860–1946)

Boardman, Mabel (1860–1946)

American Red Cross leader. Born Mabel Thorp Boardman in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 12, 1860; died in Washington, D.C., on March 17, 1946; daughter of William Jarvis and Florence (Sheffield) Boardman: attended private schools in Cleveland, New York, and Europe.

Called "the administrative genius" of the American Red Cross, Mabel Boardman is credited with transforming the turn-of-the-century, 300-member society into a thriving institution, with 29 million junior and senior members. Her 44 years of service, spent primarily behind the scenes as head of the Volunteer Special Services, was marked by an early struggle to break from the authoritarian leadership of Clara Barton , who founded the American Red Cross in 1881.

A Victorian debutante who might otherwise have been destined for a circumscribed life, Boardman had an energy and drive that quickly marked her for public service. In 1900, when the Red Cross received a federal charter, Boardman's socially prominent name was placed on the organization's board of incorporators without her knowledge. Taking her inclusion quite seriously, she secured a seat on the executive committee and began to travel, studying the work of the organization in the United States and overseas. These early trips would later be compiled into a book, Under the Red Cross Flag at Home and Abroad, published in 1915. Boardman began to agitate for change, and, though Barton resisted stepping down, Boardman used her political clout to obtain Barton's resignation in 1904. Under a new charter, and reincorporation by Act of Congress in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed William Howard Taft to head the organization. Boardman retained executive power by resuming the seat on the executive committee from which pro-Barton forces had earlier suspended her.

Catering to the bias of her day, Boardman insisted that men occupy the more conspicuous positions in the organization. She preferred working behind the scenes to develop support for the Red Cross among the socially prominent. Her efforts netted a large endowment fund, established branches across the country, and fostered cooperation with groups like the American Nursing Association. Unlike Barton before her, Boardman stayed away from work in disaster areas, remaining at her administrative post in Washington. In 1913, she raised $800,000 in public subscriptions which, together with an appropriation from Congress, made it possible to begin construction of a new headquarters. Completed in 1917, the white-marble building, dubbed the Marble Palace, was located near Washington's Potomac Park.

Boardman's early work with the Red Cross was widely recognized. In 1909, she was decorated by the king of Sweden and the Italian government. She subsequently received the French Medal of Merit, 1st Class, and the Légion d'Honneur, as well as recognition from Japan, Belgium, Portugal, Serbia, and Chile. She received honorary degrees from Yale, Western Reserve, and Smith College, and represented the Red Cross at international conferences held throughout the world.

But, as the war in Europe began to drain Red Cross resources, there was a move to reorganize the administration. By 1917, the executive committee was replaced with a Red Cross War Council. Boardman was not reappointed to the reconvened executive committee in 1919 and was left with little to do. In September 1920, she was selected by President Woodrow Wilson to serve as the first woman member of the Board of Commissioners of the District of Columbia. Through her new post, Boardman became a well-recognized figure in Washington. Imposingly tall, with graying hair and wearing pearls in the manner of a grand lady, she was said to have resembled England's Dowager Queen Mary of Teck .

In 1921, Boardman returned to the Red Cross, serving as a central committee member and national secretary. When professionals took over the leadership of the Red Cross social services, Boardman became director of Volunteer Services, organizing the activities of the Staff Assistance Corps, the Home Service Corps, the Motor and Canteen Corps, and the "Gray Ladies," among others. In 1938, upon the death of national chair Admiral Cary Grayson, Boardman was urged to succeed to his position. She declined.

When Boardman retired as director of Volunteer Services in 1940, there were over 2.7 million volunteers. She continued on the central committee and as national secretary, directing major relief problems during World War II until her retirement on December 14, 1944. At a testimonial luncheon, she received the first Distinguished Service Medal ever awarded by the Red Cross. The citation referred to her as "inspirer, leader, and practical idealist."

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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