Publication date: 2/16/2012
The girls will decide whether the plan is good or not, and reject it if it isn’t. You can trust them to know.—Juliette Gordon Low
March 12 marks the 100 year anniversary of the Girl Scouts of America. Founded in 1912 by Juliette Gordon Low with 18 girls in Savannah, Georgia, the organization now numbers 3.2 million.
The unconventional and progressive founder is the subject of a recently released biography, Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts. Author Stacy A. Cordery is chairman of the history department at Monmouth College and has also written biographies about Theodore Roosevelt.
A Savannah belle raised in the Episcopal Church, Juliette Gordon Low experienced the hardships of the Civil War in her early years. Her father Willie was a Confederate hero. Her mother Nellie Kinzie Gordon was from an elite Chicago family and would see loved ones fighting on both sides of the war.
Daisy, as Juliette Gordon Low was known, loved to draw and paint and perform tableaux and skits at family gatherings. She enjoyed outdoor hikes and rode horses, despite suffering from chronic earaches and eventual hearing loss. She attended the theater and opera and cherished a Victrola gramophone that played her favorite music.
Her upbringing and education would allow for lifelong friendships with outstanding women and became the foundation for her progressive outlook.
Daisy longed for ways to be of use and do practical work that would serve others. She would strive to be a model wife, despite her marriage to Willy Low, a gambling, hard-drinking British aristocrat drawn to indiscreet philandering.
She took the indecorous step of threatening divorce. Willy succumbed to illness, and Daisy nursed him to health, only to see him return to womanizing. Upon his death, he willed his inheritance to his mistress.
Daisy’s empathetic sister-in-laws helped her contest the will to ultimately negotiate more generous terms.
According to Cordery, Daisy was left bereft and broken-hearted and the painful lesson she learned was that life was not predictable. Despite her upbringing and propriety, she had become a widow to an unscrupulous man.
Daisy had more options than most women, including opportunities to travel and perform civic work.
“Her forty-ninth birthday pricked her conscience as she contemplated what she could do to make a difference,” writes Cordery. In May 1911, she met Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of Boy Scouts and Daisy discovered how she could contribute.
Enthusiastic girls often accompanied their brothers in Boy Scouts to camping, hiking and tracking activities. Daisy appreciated how scouting might help girls because its experiential learning activities encouraged self-sufficiency.
Daisy was also attracted to the joy and excitement of scouting. The impetus for Girl Guides in Great Britain inspired Daisy to start a troop in rural Scotland and with her own money she returned to Savannah in 1912 to begin a council.
From the outset, Girl Scout troops would be inclusive. There were Catholic, Jewish and African-American troops. An Onondaga Reservation troop was formed in New York in 1921, while the first Mexican-American troop was formed in Houston in 1922.
Girl Scouts helped girls of every class and ethnicity develop into leaders of “courage, confidence and character.”
Planting gardens, teaching canning classes, baby-sitting, making surgical dressings, knitting for soldiers… these activities would place the skills and heroics of Girl Scouts in the public eye during World War I and prompt thousands of girls to join.
According to Cordery, James West of the Boys Scouts of America harangued Daisy to maintain the English moniker of Girl Guides. West believed, “Girl Scouts ‘sissified’ the name.”
Daisy empowered girls to make decisions and accepted that troops and patrols in the United States preferred the name,“Girl Scouts”.
Visionary as well as tenacious, Daisy enlisted other capable women to provide leadership and administrative skills for the Girl Scouts organization. One of the traditions she initiated was to invite every First Lady to be an Honorary Girl Scout Leader.
She encouraged funding opportunities as well as decision making at the local level. In fact, Girl Scout cookie sales would be an idea developed by an Oklahoma troop in 1917. Daisy believed cookie sales could teach girls entrepreneurship, leadership and community involvement.
Cordery writes that Daisy was always willing to be guided by girls making decisions.
Juliette Gordon Low by Stacy A. Cordery is a highly worthwhile read about the Girl Scouts founder who embraced “meeting royalty, hunting tigers, flying in airplanes, climbing the Pyramid, nursing soldiers, living on two continents and traveling to Africa and India.”
Category: Nonfiction, Biography