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Low, Juliettefree

(31 October 1860–18 January 1927)
  • Michelle Brattain

Low, Juliette (31 October 1860–18 January 1927), founder of the Girl Scouts of America, was born Juliette Gordon in Savannah, Georgia, the daughter of General William Washington Gordon, a former Confederate officer and cotton merchant, and Eleanor Kinzie. “Daisy,” as she was known to friends and members of her family, was a “brilliant eccentric,” according to her siblings. Juliette seems to have taken after her mother, a “Yankee” from Chicago, who was well known as a vivacious, energetic, independent woman who spoke her mind and generally belied the sentimental, passive ideal of antebellum women. Like her mother, Juliette, was frequently described by her friends and family in terms of her charm, wicked wit, vitality, enthusiasm, and devil-may-care attitude.

Juliette’s father quickly recovered financial losses sustained during the war, and Juliette and her siblings were all provided expensive and stylish educations. Juliette attended private school in Savannah and then boarding school at Stuart Hall and Edge Hill in Virginia. She completed her education at Mesdemoiselles Charbonnier’s, a select finishing school in New York City, where she acquired all the accomplishments necessary to a nineteenth-century debutante. Though Juliette proved quite talented at art and acquired a great interest in history and literature, her spelling remained notoriously poor and she commonly used malapropisms.

After graduation, Juliette embarked on a series of travels in the United States and Europe. In England she met William Mackay Low, the independently wealthy son of a family well established in English and Savannah society. As the only male heir to the multimillion-dollar English estate of Andrew Low, William hobnobbed with the highest members of British society, including the prince of Wales. After a long, secret engagement, William and Juliette were married on 21 December 1886 in Savannah. They spent most of their nine-year marriage in England, where they established several households but did not have children. Although Juliette Low apparently experienced some trepidation upon entering such aristocratic circles, she became a popular and talented hostess, joining the social circuit of hunts, balls, and events at court. The marriage, however, began to deteriorate. An earache, mistakenly treated with nitrate of silver, left Low with chronic hearing problems, and as they became worse it was impossible for her to continue horseback riding and hunting. Soon William Low was leaving his wife alone for long periods of time. He became involved with another woman and asked his wife for a divorce. Low consented, and the couple had a long and bitter separation. In 1905, before the divorce was finalized, William Low died, leaving the bulk of his estate to his mistress. For the next six years, a disheartened Low, burdened by wounded pride and chronic hearing problems, migrated back and forth from Europe to the United States visiting friends and family.

During her many travels, Low met General Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the British Boy Scouts. The two struck up a warm friendship straightaway, based on mutual interests in sculpture and Low’s immediate interest in scouting. They corresponded regularly for several years, and according to two of Low’s biographers it was rumored that Baden-Powell had once proposed marriage. Allegedly the 51-year-old Low declined because she believed that having children was important to Baden-Powell, and she realized that she could no longer bear children. She did, however, develop a keen interest in the Girl Guides, the feminine equivalent of the Boy Scouts. In 1911 Low established her own troop among poor girls living around her Scottish home, then she formed two troops in London. She also brought the idea of the guides to the United States, organizing sixteen Savannah girls into a guide troop in 1912. Although Low’s work promoting scouting was temporarily disrupted by the death of her father, she resumed enthusiastic promotion of the Girl Guides in 1913. Within a few years, Baden-Powell’s speaking engagements in the United States and Low’s efforts in Savannah had piqued national interest in the Girl Guides. During World War I membership in the scouts expanded dramatically.

Low threw her abundant energies into scouting, becoming an international leader and the guiding light of the American movement. She visited Washington, D.C., in 1913 to set up a national organization and traveled to Chicago and New England in 1914 to set up troops. During her travels, she recruited a number of prominent women to the cause, including Mina Edison, the wife of Thomas Edison, and Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, the sister of Theodore Roosevelt. Low also tried to combine the Girl Guides with the Campfire Girls, a group already established in the United States, but the plan fell through because of disagreements about the administration of the proposed union. By this time Low and her associates had begun to refer to the guides as Girl Scouts, a term that became permanent with the organization of the Girl Scouts of America in 1915. Low became the first president of the Girl Scouts, supervised the composition of a handbook, How Girls Can Help Their Country, and underwrote all the expenses of the administration and publicity herself. She served as president until 1920 and represented the American scouts at the first international gathering of Girl Scouts and Guides in 1919. In the final years of her life, Low suffered from cancer but continued to dedicate her time to the scouts and kept her illness largely a secret. One of her final services to the scouts was to aid in the organization of the world Girl Scout camp held in the United States in 1926.

As founder of the Girl Scouts, Low was truly tireless in her dedication to her young troops. Low’s extraordinary efforts on the behalf of the scouts have elevated her to hero status in scout mythology. In a story much treasured in Girl Scout lore, and one that perhaps best captures Low’s personality and contagious excitement, “Daisy” allegedly once stood on her head during an early scout board meeting to exhibit the newly designed Girl Scout shoe, which she had just happened to wear to the meeting. Such unbridled, unself-conscious enthusiasm and uncommon efforts made Low the leader of an extraordinarily successful movement. Low died in Savannah.

Bibliography

The Gordon-Low family papers are housed in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Georgia Historical Society of Savannah. Among the several biographies about Low, one of the most discerning is Gladys Denny Shultz and Daisy Gordon Lawrence, Lady from Savannah: The Life of Juliette Low (1958). Based on family papers and reminiscences, it provides a thorough account of Low’s family background, her childhood, and her personal life. Other useful sources include Anne Hyde Choate and Helen Ferris, eds., Juliette Low and the Girl Scouts (1928), a book of essays by friends and family members, and Mildred Mastin Pace’s Juliette Low (1947), a biography produced for younger readers and approved by the national organization of the Girl Scouts. An obituary appears in the New York Times, 18 Jan. 1927.