Born at the start of the Civil War, Juliette Gordon Low grew up in Georgia, where she struggled to reconcile being a good Southern belle with her desire to run barefoot through the fields. Deafened by an accident, “Daisy” married a dashing British aristocrat and moved to England. But she was ultimately betrayed by her husband and dissatisfied by the aimlessness of privileged life.
For years afterward, Low searched for something useful to do with her life. Her quest for a sense of purpose ended in 1911, when she met retired British officer Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. On returning to the United States in 1912, she called her cousin: “Come right over! I’ve got something for the girls of Savannah, and all of America, and all the world, and we’re going to start it tonight!” Within ten years, the Girl Scouts organization was indeed worldwide.
Stacey Cordery’s biography, Juliette Gordon Low, The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts (Viking, 2012) is the first definitive life of Low for adults. Cordery is also the author of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker.
Q: There’s an undercurrent of sadness in Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low’s life: her mother referred to her as a “pig-headed fool,” and when Juliette was deep into making the Girl Scouts a success, her mother called her work “stunts.” As a married woman, she found she was unable to have children, and her feckless husband ran off with an English socialite. Her idol, Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts who courted her, dropped her for a much younger woman. Where did Daisy find the strength to believe in herself?
There are several sources for Juliette Low’s never-say-die pluck. Her formative years were spent watching her father make the climb from defeated Confederate officer to pillar of Savannah society. His insistence upon looking forward was not lost on his daughter. When Daisy’s mother heaped criticism upon her, Daisy chose to prove her mother wrong rather than crumple in a spineless heap, and redoubled her efforts. Daisy watched in astonishment as her mother gave in to grief after the death of her younger sister Alice. Afterwards Daisy was determined that no one would ever say “poor, pitiful Daisy,” not even when her hearing was compromised, her husband wandered, or her family questioned her ability to make a go of the Girl Scouts. Although she could suffer from doubt and despondency, Juliette Low was fundamentally an optimistic person who believed that people were good and the world was on a positive trajectory.
Q: The way she was raised in Savannah after the Civil War gave her a kind of learned incompetence. As a Southern aristocratic lady, she was supposed to be that figurine on a wedding cake her whole life. Do you think her ideas about the Girl Scouts and teaching them to be independent and self-sufficient was a direct reaction against the kind of woman she once been?
I don’t think that she would have ever described herself as the figurine on a wedding cake. Her mother and her grandmother were potent examples of women of action—their accomplishments, from authoring books to creating the Georgia Chapter of the Colonial Dames, were considerable. I think it is more likely that Juliette Low’s firm promotion of an equal emphasis on domestic training and career preparation in Girl Scouting was in wry recognition of the fact that her own life did not turn out as planned. Additionally, when she had lived a life of “froth and bubbles” as the socialite wife of William Mackay Low, she never found it truly fulfilling. From the Gordon family she inherited a strong pull toward civic duty—which she honored in several ways before creating the Girl Scouts in 1912.
Q: She became deaf and received the most attention from her parents when she was ill. I wonder why, being as self-critical as she was, and hungry for her parents’ approval, she didn’t become self-pitying?
Every child— in an ideal world— receives an abundance of attention when ill. It was the same for the Gordons’ other children in their times of sickness. Self-pity was not considered a virtue in the Gordon household. No Gordon received approbation for that kind of self-absorption. So, since self-pity was not rewarded, Daisy looked for other traits to cultivate. This was certainly an unconscious process, and I am playing psychobiographer here to a degree that makes historians uncomfortable. I think, however, that Daisy Gordon discovered that being funny, charmingly quirky, or, as it came to be called in the family, “crazy,” was the best way to carve out a niche among her five brothers and sisters. And being Crazy Daisy was a role with clear payoff: the parents and siblings she loved perked up and became happier even as she took the spotlight.
Q: Girls flocked by the thousands to join Girl Scouts and the organization pitched in with patriotic zeal during World War I. Young people are very impressionable. Explain how Daisy prevented the Girl Scouts from becoming a kind of Red Guard, with heavy emphasis on duty, selflessness, etc.
The most important purpose of Girl Scouting was fun. Juliette Gordon Low and her adult leaders understood girls. During World War I, Low knew that girls needed both to feel a part of the enormous national crisis and yet still be the young people that they were. So, the preparedness was both serious and fun. Tough tasks such as marching, drilling, and picking oakum were interspersed with games and teas. The context for Girl Scouting was spelled out in the Girl Scout Promise:
1. To do my duty to God and to my country.
2. To help other people at all times.
3. To obey the Laws of the Scouts.
The third of the ten Girl Scout Laws was “A Girl Scout’s Duty Is to Be Useful and to Help Others.” So even as a girl was rolling bandages or knitting scarves for soldiers, she knew she was fulfilling the very essence of Girl Scouting. And she was being taken seriously by her troop, her family, her community, and her nation, rather than being dismissed as flighty or having no real use. And Juliette Low’s real genius was to understand that girls did not want to be neglected, oppressed, or patronized, but rather to be proud contributors to the life of the nation. And the fun was a natural outgrowth of Juliette Low’s personality, which was stamped indelibly on her organization.
Q: During Black History month at the University of Mary Washington, we had a speaker address integrating the Girl Scouts. Would you explain why that became an issue? How difficult was it to resolve?
One of the first Girl Scout troops in the U.S. was comprised of African American girls in Savannah. Juliette Low did not mean to exclude any girls for any reason. She was, however, a product of her time and upbringing, and to expect her to be the only white non-bigoted American then would be ludicrous. She could have, but did not, stop those girls from forming a troop.
In 1918, the question of African American troops becoming officially registered arose. Juliette Low could have, but did not, nix the idea completely. Instead, she thought it best to leave the idea to local councils to decide. She was, after all, the daughter of a states’ rights Southern Democrat. Low knew that while African-American Girl Scouts might be fine in New York, Mississippians might not be supportive. Rather than let the issue tear the organization apart in the 1920s, a nadir for race relations in this country, she allowed locales to choose. By 1917 there were two Hawaiian troops and disabled troops. In the early 1920s, Mexican American and Native American troops would form. She never had a policy segregating girls by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, or religion. Juliette Gordon Low believed Girl Scouting would benefit all girls.
Q: The founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell, was a military hero of the Boer War, which largely accounted for the appeal and success of the Boy Scouts in Britain. And yet he envisioned, as Daisy did, the Boy and Girl Scouts as an opportunity to imbue young people with ideals of tolerance and international understanding. Why?
Dulce bellum inexpertis. Baden-Powell is one of a long list of soldiers who knew from experience that, as General William T. Sherman famously put it, “war is hell.” The internationalism promoted by Scouting on both sides of the Atlantic developed after the First World War. It is difficult to recover today the horror of that conflict. Both Baden-Powell and Juliette Gordon Low lost friends in a war that introduced terrible new weapons that killed anonymously. Baden-Powell and Low were part of a movement in the early 1920s to bring about global peace through international understanding. Juliette Gordon Low intuited the role that Girl Scouts and Girl Guides could play as members of the younger generation who were not tainted by old hatreds. “Girl Scouting and Girl Guiding,” she said, “can be the magic thread that links the youth of the world together.” Such a link, based on an understanding of each others’ cultures, would help war as an instrument of foreign policy disappear.
Q: One of the early leaders of the Girl Scouts, Rose Kerr, said that Daisy’s behavior and determination “proved of what stuff she was made.” Do you think Daisy’s passion about the Girl Scouts and her devotion to her organization might have sprung from a subconscious desire to show that people (particularly her mother) had been wrong about her?
Perhaps. Historians shy away from subconscious motives—or at least I do. There is no thread of revenge or triumphalism in Juliette Low’s writings, so it is not a desire that I could verify in the documents. Her relationship with her mother was complicated, but not characterized by malice, particularly not by the time Low founded the Girl Scouts.
Q: Juliette Gordon Low’s silliness and love of fun never left her. She never lost sight of the girl in herself did she?
Nope. Never. That contributed to her success as well. And it’s why the girls loved her.