Juliette Magill Kinzie Gordon Low (1860-1927)
The founder of the Girls Scouts was called “Daisy” by her Savannah family. Partly because they had Northern connections, the Gordons suffered little during the post-Civil War period of her youth, and she attended finishing schools in the South as well as in New York City. Daisy made frequent trips to Europe as a young woman, and after her 1886 marriage to a wealthy Georgian, lived as much abroad as in the U.S.
Nonetheless, there were troubles in her life. She grew increasingly deaf from early ear problems; she had no children, which defined her as an oddity in her time; and her husband’s interest in another woman was so great that he attempted to divorce her. When he died after eighteen years of marriage, he left his estate to his lover, and Low was only able to secure her financial future after long legal battles.
Her life in Britain made her aware of the “Boy Scouts” and “Girl Guides” that were becoming popular there after the turn of the century. After leading a troop in Scotland, Low imported the idea to the U.S. and formed the first American Guide troops in Savannah on March 12, 1912. At fifty-two then, she would devote the rest of her life to organizing on behalf of girls. She began a national headquarters in Washington in 1913 (later moved to New York), and by the following year, there were troops from New England to Georgia and as far west as Chicago.
The Camp Fire Girls were already in existence, and merger talks were conducted between the two; although the union never took place, Low used the name that was proposed for the join group, and in 1915, formalized her Guides into the work with her mentors in Britain, but she continued to organize throughout the U.S. and at the war’s end, American girls participated in an international meeting in London in 1919.
Her model for independent, sturdy girlhood proved extremely popular as Americans moved out of the Victorian era, and the GSA built camps throughout the country where girls learned survival skills as well as appreciation of nature. At the same time, domesticity was stressed, with early merit badges being awarded in such categories as parlourmaid, dairy maid, laundress, and cook. Girl Scouts began selling their famous cookies in the early 1920s, shortly before Juliette Low’s death.
Her organizational ability and the popularity of her idea is even more impressive in view of the fact that the fundamentals of the Girl Scouts were established in just a decade—the portion of Low’s life between her early fifties and early sixties. Doubtless the fact that she had no children motivated her to adopt not only the hundreds of thousands girls who joined troops during her lifetime, but also the young women who acted as their leaders.
Low continued to expand the GSA even after being diagnosed with cancer in her early sixties. Her genius for organizing was such that Scout membership soon exceeded the older Camp Fire Girls, and by her death, there were troops in every state of the nation. Juliette Gordon Low’s October 31st birthday is still celebrated by millions of girls and women who have passed through the ranks of the Girl Scouts, and her Savannah home is a museum now open to the public.
Written by Doris Weatherford