Low, Juliette Gordon (1860–1927)

views updated

Low, Juliette Gordon (1860–1927)

Founder of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America. Name variations: Daisy Low. Born Juliette Magill Gordon on October 31, 1860, in Savannah, Georgia; died of cancer on January 17, 1927, in Savannah, Georgia; daughter of William Washington II (a cotton broker and second lieutenant in the Confederate army) and Eleanor Kinzie Gordon; attended private day and boarding schools, and Mesdemoiselles Charbonniers' School, New York City, diploma, 1880; aunt of Daisy Gordon Lawrence (a writer); married William Low, on December 21, 1886 (died 1905); no children.

Moved with her family (without her father) to her maternal grandparents' home in Chicago for the duration of the Civil War (1864); with reunited family, returned to Savannah (August 23, 1865); began attending day school in Savannah; went to Stuart Hall boarding school in Virginia and that summer made first visit to Europe (1873); at 15, transferred to Edge Hill boarding school in Virginia (1875) where she stayed until she began attending a French finishing school in New York City; graduated and returned to Savannah to make her debut (1880); went to Europe (1882) where she met and fell in love with William Low; traveled for the next four years and returned to Europe (1884) and accepted William Low's offer of marriage; treated by a physician who injected silver nitrate into her ear, which greatly impaired her hearing (1885); removal of a piece of wedding rice from her good ear resulted in an infection that left her completely deaf on that side (1886); with husband, established homes in Savannah, Perthshire, Scotland, and (1889) in Warwickshire, England; marriage crumbled and William Low died (1905) before the intended divorce was finalized; traveled, studied art, and searched for purpose; met Robert Baden-Powell and under his tutelage established Girl Guide troops in Scotland and London (1910); created the first troop of the Girl Guides in the U.S. (March 12, 1912); elected president of Girl Scouts of America which was incorporated in New York City (1915); resigned as president (1920); devoted the rest of her life to increasing the membership of and international involvement in Girl Scouting.

On June 17, 1911, 51-year-old Juliette Gordon Low confided to her diary: "I told [Robert Baden-Powell] about my futile efforts to be of use, and the shame I feel when I think of how much I could do, yet how little I accomplish, and when thrown with a man who has made a success of everything, by contrast I feel that my life brings forth 'nothing but leaves.' A wasted life. He looked so kindly when he said, 'There are little stars that guide us on, although we do not realize it.'" Baden-Powell guided Low toward her happiest and most fulfilling endeavor: the creation of the Girl Scouts of America.

Juliette Gordon was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1860, just before the Civil War split the United States into two warring factions. While her father William Gordon, a wealthy and prominent Southerner, fought in the Confederate army, her mother Eleanor Kinzie Gordon , who came from one of Chicago's founding families, was left alone in their Savannah mansion with three young daughters. When General Sherman and the Union army marched through the city in December 1864, Eleanor Gordon took her children north to the safety of her family home. In Chicago, Daisy and her sisters grew strong again after the deprivation they had undergone in the war-torn South, proudly singing

Confederate marching songs and awaiting news from their father. Late in August 1865, the Gordon family was reunited in Savannah. In the wake of the South's defeat, the Gordons' marriage faltered briefly, and William Gordon's cotton-brokering business suffered. The next five years were financially troubled.

Daisy grew up hardly noticing their temporary poverty. One constant was a love of animals. Throughout her life, she surrounded herself with cats and dogs, birds and horses, and any sick or stray animal commanded her immediate love and attention. Her education began with Bible lessons conducted by her mother and continued with her favorite sister Eleanor at schools taught by local women. Daisy loved art, languages, and literature, but never did well in mathematics or spelling; her friends and family joked about her atrocious spelling and erratic logic. Although she was raised a Southern belle, with strict rules of behavior, she would often do and say things that confused people. Her mother referred to such behavior as "Daisy's stunts." Her brother later recalled: "Two and two by no means made four to her. They made anything she chose to imagine they made, and once she had an idea in her head facts could not change it. The idea remained as she visualized it, in defiance of all argument and demonstration to the contrary."

I've got something for the girls of Savannah, and all America, and all the world, and we're going to start it to-night.

—Juliette Gordon Lowa

At age 13, Daisy was sent to boarding school in Virginia, where her flair for dramatics and her sense of humor made her popular with the other students. She also founded her first club, The Helpful Hands, in an effort to teach younger girls to sew and then give their handmade clothing to the poor. (Their charitable efforts were not always successful; at times, the sleeves fell off the shirts.) As an adolescent, Daisy spent a great deal of time away from home. When not at boarding school she often summered in north Georgia with her many cousins, exploring the woods and streams around Etowah Falls. Her 16th Christmas was memorable for a visit to relatives in Washington, D.C., where she attended her first adult parties with young male students from West Point, Harvard, and Princeton.

The following year, she transferred to a finishing school in New York City run by the Mesdemoiselles Charbonnier, where the young women students wore uniforms, spoke only French, and were escorted everywhere. In addition to her studies in literature and languages, Daisy added classes in dancing and advanced art; she was recognized as having genuine artistic talent in both drawing and oil painting. She also greatly enjoyed attending theater and the opera. After graduating with the traditional diploma, she made her debut into Savannah society in 1880.

In accordance with the customs of her class and era, Daisy's time was filled with parties, balls, dinners, and similar entertainments; she would later tap her large network of friends in the U.S. and in Europe for assistance with her burgeoning Girl Scout movement. Travel had become an accepted routine in her life, as she spent some part of every year visiting extended cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends in Washington, New York, Boston, and Chicago. In 1882, she took her first trip to Europe. While in England, she became acquainted with some friends of her family's, including a handsome, charming, and reckless young man named William Mackay Low. The scion of a wealthy American, William lived in England. Daisy Gordon and Willy Low began their romance in 1882, and by 1884 had agreed to marry. The couple courted for another two years, because both their fathers initially disapproved of the match, before finally setting a wedding date for late 1886.

On January 18, 1885, suffering from an earache, Daisy sought out a physician in Savannah and persuaded him to treat her with an injection of silver nitrate, a new method she had read about in a New York paper. The treatment severely, and permanently, impaired her hearing in that ear. Despite the months that passed before she was physically well again, she continued to prepare for her wedding. On December 21, 1886, Daisy Gordon and Willy Low were married in a lavish ceremony in Savannah, and the guests showered them with rice. In a freakish accident, a piece of rice lodged painfully in her good ear. When the ensuing infection healed, she was totally deaf in that ear.

Low learned to live with her hearing impairment. She watched lips when people spoke, and tried to seat guests on the side of what had now become her good ear, in which she retained some measure of hearing. She also got in the habit of speaking first as a way of avoiding misunderstandings with others. When she was older, she occasionally used her deafness to her advantage by hearing what she wanted to hear whether it had actually been said to her or not. This method was often employed to gain "volunteers" for her Girl Scouts. None of Low's family or friends ever suggested that she was defeated by her deafness; she did not dwell on the difficulties that the loss of her hearing caused her.

Daisy Low and her new husband set up homes in Savannah and in England and Scotland, where Willy's financial and social status conferred upon his wife membership in the English upper class. The Lows entertained often, and Daisy was twice presented at court. They explored Egypt and Europe and attended balls, formal parties, masquerades, and the London theater and opera. Daisy continued to indulge her love of the outdoors with fox hunting, fishing, swimming, tennis, hiking, and horseback riding. She often visited her family in the States, and they came to stay with her in England.

As the years passed, the couple became increasingly distant. Willy was interested in horse racing, took long trips away to hunt big game, and spent many nights drinking with his male friends. To assuage her unhappiness and to fill her time alone, Low threw herself into her art. She painted in oils, carved wood, and sculpted. She also learned to forge metal; one winter, she took lessons from a blacksmith, made her own tools, and designed and created a pair of iron gates for her home in England, decorating them with hammered copper daisies. Ill health began to plague her, adding to her unhappiness. Eventually, she started to go her own way, taking more trips alone, and once visited Egypt with her younger sister. She became good friends with author Rudyard Kipling and his wife Carrie (Caroline Starr Kipling [1865–1939]), and with several British military heroes. She tended to the poor and the indigent in the local village near her English home, and she never turned away a stray animal. In 1898, Low returned to the U.S. to assist her mother in setting up a convalescent hospital for soldiers wounded in the Spanish-American War.

By 1901, her marriage was in tatters. Willy Low, whose alcoholism had worsened, had taken a mistress and asked for a divorce. Before it could be finalized, however, he died in 1905, leaving almost everything to his mistress. Daisy, who had to sue for what was rightfully hers, felt betrayed, embarrassed, and hurt by his actions, but nonetheless she mourned for Willy and the love they had once shared. Maintaining a brave front, she resisted suitors and comforted herself with her family and further travel. For the next five years, she moved between London society, Egypt, the United States, and India. She also

took up the serious study of sculpting. Although she enjoyed her life, she was nagged by the conviction that it was neither useful nor rewarding. In 1910, she met Baden-Powell, the great British war hero. They became fast friends, sharing an infectious enthusiasm for living as well as a love of art and the outdoors. Together they discussed these topics and, always, Baden-Powell's preoccupation—the Boy Scouts. Soon she began to compare her life, unfavorably, with his.

A hero of the Boer War, General Sir Robert Baden-Powell was also the founder of the Boy Scouts. The initial idea for the Boy Scouts came from his military experiences in India and at the battle of Mafeking, South Africa. In Mafeking, the outnumbered British soldiers under his command were relieved of some of their mundane tasks by a corp of boys trained to be messengers and scouts. The boys so enjoyed their duties that Baden-Powell began a similar program for English boys. Much to his surprise, when he announced the formation of the Boy Scouts in England, 6,000 girls also eagerly registered. Baden-Powell charged his sister, Agnes Baden-Powell , with the care and training of the girls, and she formed them into Girl Guide troops. Although the girls went on hiking trips and learned outdoor lore like the boys did, they were also educated in first aid, homemaking skills, arts, crafts, and drama.

In June 1911, Daisy Low wrote of Baden-Powell in her diary: "A sort of intuition comes over me that he believes I might make more out of life, and that he has ideas which, if I follow them, will open a more useful sphere of work before me in future." Gradually, she became interested in the Girl Guides. "I like girls and I like the organization and the rules and pastimes," she wrote her father, "so if you find that I get very deeply interested you must not be surprised." With Baden-Powell's blessing, Low tried her hand at organizing a Girl Guide troop in the Scottish Highlands. She called together girls who lived near her home, and with friends taught them about nursing the sick, cooking, knitting, knot-tying, signaling, and personal health. Low enabled the poorer Scottish girls to provide for themselves and their families by beginning a program of carding and spinning wool from the girls' own sheep, then found a market for the homespun yarn in London. She also showed them how to raise and sell chickens to the wealthy visitors who came periodically to the area's hunting lodges. Thus, rather than having to leave their homes to take arduous industrial jobs in the cities, members of the Scottish Girl Guides learned useful skills, made money to help support their families, and had fun doing so.

Because she lived for part of the year in London, Low next started two successful Girl Guide troops in a poor section of that city. When she had to leave for America, she looked about for someone who could lead those troops in her absence. She selected a woman who protested that she was too busy, had no experience with girls, and did not even live in London. Low's selective hearing paid off: "Then that is all settled," she replied. "I have already told my girls you will take the meeting next Thursday." She then left England to establish her new project with the girls of America.

Savannah was to become the home of the first American Girl Guide troop. Low's cousin, Nina Anderson Pape , suggested that they contact a group of local girls who were already meeting together under the tutelage of naturalist Walter J. Hoxie to take nature walks, explore the habits of wildlife, and occasionally cook outdoors over a campfire. Low invited the girls to her house and explained about the Girl Guide promise, the uniforms, and the fun they would have learning new things. The Savannah girls clamored to join. On March 12, 1912, 18 girls enrolled in two troops, the White Rose Patrol and the Carnation Patrol. The troops made their own uniforms, studied the English Girl Guide handbook, and met in a building Low renovated that became, according to its placard, the Girl Guide Headquarters. Unusual for a time when exercise was regarded as quite possibly deleterious to a growing girl's health, they also played in the vacant lot across the street, where Low had built basketball and tennis courts.

Interest in the Girl Guides was immediate and nationwide. Newspapers spread the word, and in Savannah alone, six Girl Guide troops soon sprang up. Low bought some land along a river near the city so the girls could make day excursions. Patterning her methods on Baden-Powell's, she led the first troop on a five-day camping trip. She learned of a few, scattered Girl Scout troops in America that had been started by people who had heard of the Boy Scout movement in England, and worked to merge these with her Girl Guides. Eventually, the Girl Scout troops became affiliated with hers through their adoption of the first American version of the English Girl Guide handbook (prepared by Hoxie and published in 1913), How Girls Can Help Their Country. Low compromised with the other troops by agreeing to take on their name, and all the early Girl Guides were renamed Girl Scouts.

Girl Scouting began in a new era for American women. Although firmly in the pattern of 19th-century women's clubs, Girl Scouting attempted both to shape girls' characters—by molding them into model citizens and educating them for their role as wives and mothers—and to expand their boundaries. The latter notion was undoubtedly affected by Juliette Gordon Low's own life; raised to be a Southern belle, she found when her marriage faltered that she needed social survival skills she did not possess, and therefore had to invent. With the Girl Scouts, she wanted to offer girls and young women possibilities that had not existed for her. Girl Scouting taught self-sufficiency through wilderness skills, farming techniques, first aid, rescue work, and outdoor food preparation. Although then as now there might be only a slim chance that any given Girl Scout would actually need to put, say, her wilderness survival skills to the test, it was the sense of self-esteem and capability instilled by these abilities that was of crucial importance. How Girls Can Help Their Country also contained a short chapter on careers for women. While Low emphasized the sciences—astronomy, geology, ecology, botany—she did not neglect the more traditional women's fields. Care of infants and children, art, music, cooking, sewing, and housekeeping skills were all topics included in the Girl Scout agenda. Membership in the Girl Scouts brought with it an opportunity to fill leadership positions, boost self-esteem, enjoy community service, work and play within a supportive group of women, advance talents and develop new ones, and become more resourceful, independent, and self-aware.

In 1913, Juliette Gordon Low established a national headquarters for her growing movement in Washington, D.C. She installed her friend Edith D. Johnston as the first National Secretary, and Johnston was soon joined by a board of directors and advisors comprised of wealthy and aristocratic women, including America's first lady Ellen Axson Wilson (who would die one year later). Low spent most of her time traveling around the country giving speeches, meeting with reporters, and soliciting volunteers to lead the Girl Scouts on the state and local levels. Every new acquaintance she made led to another one, creating a network of dedicated Girl Scout leaders that stretched from Savannah to Washington, D.C., to New York, to Boston, to Chicago, to St. Louis. In June 1915, the Girl Scouts of America (GSA) was incorporated, the constitution and bylaws of the organization were adopted, and Low was elected president. That year, there were approximately 5,000 girls enrolled as Girl Scouts. In 1917, the Girl Scouts formed their first troop of physically challenged girls. Later, troops for the deaf and the blind would be started—the first of their kind in America.

Juliette Gordon Low was the impetus for the Girl Scout movement, and her energy kept the movement growing. So did her money. From 1912 to 1917, Low paid all the administrative and salary expenses, as well as rent on the national headquarters, handbooks and uniforms for the Girl Scouts, out of her own pocket. She once sold her pearls to keep the movement alive. She also often returned to England and Scotland to socialize with friends and to learn from the Baden-Powells of the activities of the Girl Guides.

When the First World War broke out, Low helped with the relief of Belgian orphans and set up housing and transportation for the visiting relatives of wounded soldiers. In 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I, the national board of the Girl Scouts of America sent a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson offering their assistance. Girl Scouts participated in the conservation programs of the National Food Administration headed by Herbert Hoover, hosted Liberty Bond drives to help fund the war effort, assisted Red Cross nurses and canteen workers, and sewed and rolled bandages. Girl Scouting grew tremendously during the war years; by 1920, membership stood at 50,000, and neighborhoods throughout America boasted Girl Scout troops.

Juliette Gordon Low had become a celebrity. Her name and her photograph were intimately connected with the Girl Scouts, and she reveled in every good work her girls accomplished. She convinced the new first lady, Wilson's second wife Edith Bolling Wilson , to become the honorary president of the Girl Scouts. Other first ladies followed suit: Grace Coolidge and particularly Lou Henry Hoover , who was elected president of the GSA in 1922, were enthusiastic supporters. When she was honorary president as first lady in 1929, in an extension of her husband's philosophy of volunteerism, Lou Hoover oversaw the Girl Scouts' efforts to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression. (Although well meant, this project was largely unsuccessful.)

After World War I, the Girl Scouts of America underwent standardization and professionalization. In January 1920, Juliette Low resigned as president so that she could spend more time among the girls across the country. Her birthday was designated as Founder's Day, and continues to be celebrated annually by Girl Scout troops. Anne Hyde Choate , who became the new president in Low's stead, presided over the rewriting of the handbook, retitled Scouting for Girls; saw the magazine of the GSA modernized and renamed The American Girl; and laid plans for training camps for Girl Scout leaders. More important, the first International Conference of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts was held in England, with Low representing the GSA. She became vitally interested in worldwide Girl Scouting and hoped that the exchange of ideas between girls would promote the cause of international peace.

In the mid-1920s, Juliette Gordon Low began to experience symptoms of the cancer that would eventually kill her. She suffered great pain without complaint and continued to attend the annual national conferences and the many regional meetings of the GSA. Hosting the fourth International Conference at Camp Edith Macy in New York State turned out to be her swan song. In typical fashion, "Miss Daisy" had promised at the third International Conference in July 1924 that the world delegates would have a lovely time during the next conference at Camp Edith Macy. The camp was at the time a totally undeveloped piece of land along the Hudson River with no roads, no campsites, no running water, no electricity, and no buildings, but Low wanted the first International Conference held outside England to be hosted by the United States. Disregarding the cries of the board of directors of the Girl Scouts of America, she coaxed them into creating a blueprint for the camp, raising the money, and building the necessary infrastructure. Although it was a close call, Camp Edith Macy opened in time for the 400 delegates of the International Conference.

Juliette Gordon Low died in her beloved Savannah on January 18, 1927. She was buried, at her request, in her Girl Scout uniform with a telegram from Anne Hyde Choate and the Girl Scout National Council tucked into her breast pocket. It read, "You are not only the first Girl Scout but the best Girl Scout of them all."

Encomiums for Juliette Gordon Low took many forms. The Juliette Low World Friendship Fund was established in 1927 to support foreign exchange between Girl Scouts of the U.S. and Girl Scouts, or Guides, from other countries. During World War II, an American-made battleship, the Juliette Low, was named for her. The Girl Scouts of America purchased Juliette Gordon Low's birthplace in Savannah in 1953. In 1979, she was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. President Ronald Reagan, in 1983, named a federal building in Savannah for her—only the second federal building ever to be named for a woman. Among the memorials to Low is one she herself donated before her death: Gordonston Memorial Park in Savannah. There she installed the wrought-iron gates with the copper daisies she had made so long ago in England.

Low's greatest monument is the continuation of her cherished principles in the ongoing Girl Scouting movement. When she died, GSA membership stood at approximately 200,000. In 1962, when the Girl Scouts celebrated the 50-year anniversary of their founding, 3,500,000 American girls wore the distinctive uniforms of the Brownies, Juniors, Intermediates, and Seniors. The time they spend as Girl Scouts—the skills they learn, the insights they have, the helpful deeds they do, and the friendships they form—helps to ensure that those millions of girls avoid what Juliette Gordon Low feared most for herself: a wasted life.


Choate, Anne Hyde, and Helen Ferris, eds. Juliette Low and the Girl Scouts: The Story of an American Woman, 1860–1927. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1928.

Lyon, Nancy. "Juliette Low: The Eccentric Who Founded the Girl Scouts," in Ms. Magazine. November 1981, pp. 101–105.

Parker, Charlotte, "Juliette Magill Gordon Low," in Kenneth Coleman and Charles Stephen Gurr, eds., Dictionary of Georgia Biography. Vol. 2. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983, pp. 638–640.

Shultz, Gladys Denny, and Daisy Gordon Lawrence. Lady from Savannah: The Life of Juliette Low. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1958.

suggested reading:

"Biographic Sketch: Juliette Gordon Low, Founder, Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.," unattributed article, Girl Scouts of the United States of America National Headquarters, New York, New York, n.d.

Highlights in Girl Scouting, 1912–1991. NY: Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., 1991.

Kerr, Rose. The Story of a Million Girls: Guiding and Girl Scouting Round the World. London: The Girl Guides Association, n.d.

The New York Times (obituary). January 19, 1927, p. 23.

Reynolds, Moira Davison. "Juliette Gordon Low, 1860–1927, Founder of Girl Scouts," in Women Champions of Human Rights. NY: McFarland, 1991, pp. 54–66.

Rhodes, Don. "Juliette Low, Girl Scouts founder, led rich life," in Augusta Chronicle-Herald. January 19, 1986.

"Seventy-five Years of Girl Scouting." NY: Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., 1986.

Strickland, Charles E. "Juliette Low, the Girl Scouts, and the Role of American Women," in Mary Kelley, ed., Woman's Being, Woman's Place: Female Identity and Vocation in American History. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1979, pp. 252–264.


Correspondence, papers, and memorabilia on the Magill and Gordon families can be found in the Gordon Family Papers, Georgia Historical Society, Savannah, Georgia and the Gordon Family Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Documentary information on Juliette Gordon Low and the Girl Scout movement is located in the Juliette Gordon Low Girl Scout National Center, Savannah, Georgia, and the Juliette Gordon Low Collection, Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. National Headquarters, New York City.

Stacy A. Cordery , Associate Professor of History, Monmouth College, Monmouth, Illinois