Be Prepared: Juliette Gordon Low and Her Girl Scouts
A young widow from a prominent Savannah family, Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low pioneered an organization to instill leadership and self-reliance in girls through community service, outdoor activities, and—of course—cookies.
On March 12, 1912, society hostess Juliette Gordon Low (1860–1927), known to family and friends as Daisy, invited eighteen girls to her home in Savannah, Georgia, to become the first Girl Guides in the United States. One year later, she changed the group’s name to Girl Scouts. Within three years, her initiative attracted more than five thousand members across the country. Daisy’s national organization has existed for more than a century, serving over two and a half million girls and women worldwide. The Girl Scouts still remain committed to their founder’s vision of building “courage, confidence, and character” in young women.
Daisy launched her dream at a moment when the innovative energy of the twentieth century was still fresh. From Henry Ford’s automobile to the Wright brothers’ airplane flight, modernization was the order of the day, and Daisy believed women had to prepare for this new world.
Juliette Magill Kinzie Gordon was born on October 31, 1860, in Savannah, Georgia. She was the second daughter in a prominent family that had roots in both North and South. Her mother, Eleanor Lytle Kinzie (1836–1917), came from a notable Chicago family. Her father, William Washington Gordon II (1834–1912), was a native of Savannah who worked in the family’s cotton-brokering business until the Civil War began. Within six months of Daisy’s birth, William joined the Confederate forces while his wife and daughters remained in Savannah. During the Union’s occupation of Savannah, Eleanor did not turn her back on old family friends from the North; she invited Union generals William T. Sherman (1820–1891) and Oliver Howard (1830–1909) into her home for tea.
Daisy and her young siblings grew up blissfully unaware of the family’s financial difficulties during the war and Reconstruction. William rebuilt the business when he returned home, and Eleanor bore four more children. The family spent summer holidays at Daisy’s aunt’s home at Etowah Cliffs in northern Georgia. Here, the Gordon siblings and their cousins climbed trees, swam, and simply romped around the countryside exploring nature. Daisy was artistically inclined and enjoyed drawing, painting, and sculpting. She even wrote plays that she and her siblings performed for the rest of the family. Although illnesses impaired her hearing, Daisy was a lively and energetic child. She often found herself in the middle of scrapes and mishaps, to the point that adults in the family affectionately called her “Crazy Daisy.”
In her teens, Daisy attended several boarding schools, including Miss Emmett’s in New Jersey and the Virginia Female Institute (now Stuart Hall School) in Staunton, Virginia. She later enrolled in Mesdemoiselles Charbonniers’ finishing school in New York City, where she became friends with Abby Lippitt Hunter (1861–1945) of Providence, Rhode Island, and Mary Gale Carter Clarke (1862–1929) of Cooperstown, New York. The three became inseparable and after their school days, they visited each other often, traveled abroad, and kept up a steady correspondence.
Daisy returned to Savannah in 1880, after her younger sister Alice suddenly died of scarlet fever. While comforting her grieving mother and running the household, she had a chance encounter with an old acquaintance, William Mackay Low (1855–1905). Willy, the son of family friends, was visiting from school in England. The two began an erratic, unpredictable relationship. Although neither family was enthusiastic about the match, Daisy and Willy married on December 21, 1886.
The couple settled in England, but unfortunately, they did not enjoy a fairy-tale marriage. Illnesses plagued the young bride immediately. Not only did she suffer from a severe case of bronchitis, but she also completely lost her hearing in one ear: a piece of rice thrown at her wedding had become lodged in her ear, leading to a punctured eardrum and an infection.
While coping with her hearing deficit and separated by an ocean from her family and intimate friends, Daisy learned to navigate the social nuances of Willy’s high-society world. He was handsome and wealthy, so life revolved around mingling with royalty and entertaining at his English and Scottish estates. But Willy’s years of drinking, financial irresponsibility, and adultery soured their relationship, ultimately causing Daisy to file for divorce. Before the proceedings were finalized, Willy’s alcoholism caused a fatal stroke. It was 1905, and Daisy was 45 years old.
Founding the Girl Scouts
Daisy now wanted to find a purpose for her life. She contemplated further study in the fine arts or more travel around the world. Charity and public service also appealed: during her marriage, she had been involved with several charitable organizations. At a luncheon in 1911, she happened to meet Sir Robert Baden-Powell (1857–1941) and his sister Agnes (1858–1945), who had just formed the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides in England. Daisy knew she had found her mission. Shortly after returning to America, she made a phone call to her cousin, Nina Pape (1869–1944), announcing, “Come right over! I’ve got something for the girls of Savannah, and all America, and the world, and we’re going to start it tonight.”
The Girl Scouts motto, “be prepared,” neatly sums up Daisy’s plans for an organization that would empower girls. She and her first group of Girl Scouts quietly made history during regular meetings in the carriage house behind her home. The girls, all over the age of twelve, practiced many applicable life skills: first aid, homemaking, sewing, and nature study. They played team sports such as basketball, and they learned essential outdoor survival skills while hiking and camping.
Inspired by Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts, Daisy didn’t limit her girls to traditional feminine pursuits. She prepared them for anything and everything, including interests outside the home. In keeping with the Girl Scout dictum to “do a good turn daily,” Daisy fostered a community-minded spirit among the girls and encouraged them to become responsible, confident leaders.
Girl Scouting, with its modern appeal and energy, captured the hearts of progressive-minded women and girls. Daisy championed her program through her network of friends, who were also prominent members of society. She encouraged other like-minded women to establish troops similar to her own. Girls stitched their own uniforms and wore them proudly, attracting more young women into the movement. Seemingly overnight, new troops sprang up.
As the organization grew, so did its need for financial support. Daisy initially funded much of the movement herself. In 1914, when she set up a national office in Washington, DC, she financed part of the project by selling a pearl necklace from her personal collection. Daisy reportedly said, “Jewels are not important, but my Girl Scouts are; they need the money more than I need the pearls.”
Soon, however, the organization recognized that girls could learn valuable skills by raising money themselves, and the now world-famous Girl Scout cookie campaign was born. Girls began baking cookies to sell as early as 1917; in 1922, the Girl Scout magazine The American Girl printed a butter-cookie recipe. Although girls today no longer bake the cookies they sell, cookie sales still teach them entrepreneurial and management tasks.
Since its inception, Girl Scouts has participated in many service endeavors. During the world wars, girls lent a hand in scrap-metal drives, grew Victory Gardens, and aided in sewing and knitting projects for the armed forces. In more recent years, troops have helped collect donations for food pantries and animal shelters, made blankets for Project Linus, fashioned caps for chemotherapy patients, and knitted hats for premature babies.
Today, Girl Scouts hold true to Daisy’s vision through troop activities, “interest patrols,” and badges. The national organization promotes business management, outdoor adventures, writing, arts, science, and technology. Members can also start their own initiatives for topics they choose. For instance, girls in the Eastern Pennsylvania Girl Scout Council created a Fashion Patrol to explore all aspects of the fashion world, including fashion illustration, clothing design, upcycling, cosplay, and craft. Leader Karen Zimmerman calls this initiative “a great way to keep older girls involved, teach them a life skill, career choices, and lead them on to adulthood.” She has guided this patrol for ten years, ever since her daughter Jessamy and other Girl Scouts came up with the idea.
Daisy’s national movement focused on girls well before American women got the right to vote in 1920. After a privileged youth and a troubled marriage, and despite a significant hearing impairment, Daisy established Girl Scouting to sow the seeds of poise and leadership. She poured her heart and soul into her work before dying from breast cancer on January 17, 1927. She helped to make the world a better place by establishing the strong foundation for Girl Scouts, a successful organization that carries on her legacy and continues to help girls develop courage, confidence, and character.
Christiansen, Betty. Girl Scouts: A Celebration of 100 Trailblazing Years. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011.
Cordery, Stacy A. The Remarkable Founder of Girl Scouts: Juliette Gordon Low. New York: Penguin Group, 2012.
Degenhardt, Mary, and Judith Kirsch. Girl Scout Collector’s Guide: A History of Uniforms, Insignia, Publications, and Memorabilia. Lubbock, Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 2005.
Girl Scout Handbook. New York: Girl Scouts Inc., 1920.
Featured image: A group portrait of a young women’s organization. A banner across the back depicts the group’s emblems and Juliette Gordon Low stands in the center. (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)
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