When Juliette Gordon Low learned that 6,000 girls had lined up at London’s Crystal Palace to join the brand new Boy Scout organization, she couldn’t contain her excitement. Her enthusiasm over that dramatic demonstration became a passion that changed her life and has influenced the lives of almost 60 million American girls. In the century since she founded the Girl Scouts, those girls have grown up to be secretaries of state and scientists, astronauts and actors, teachers and TV anchors, Supreme Court justices and singers. And they probably also invented s’mores.
A recent survey by the Girl Scout Research Institute found that almost one out of two adult women in this country has been a scout, and they have out-performed their non-scout sisters in education, income, civic engagement and volunteer activities. (I personally was a Brownie dropout, staying in just long enough to badger my mother into buying the uniform, but that was my loss.)
The organization producing these successful women would probably not be the force it is today without the industry, energy, connections and cash of Crazy Daisy Low, as the founder was known. Two very different books tell her life story: Stacy Cordery’s Juliette Gordon Low is intended as a definitive biography while Shannon Henry Kleiber’s On My Honor is an inspirational how-to manual for current scouts and their leaders.
Writers of women’s history usually struggle to find original documents – either the subjects themselves destroyed their letters (as Martha Washington is believed to have done), or their descendants didn’t deem them important enough to preserve. Low’s biographer faced the opposite problem: an overabundance of material for a woman whose story is frankly not all that fascinating until her full-force entry into the world of scouting, though in some ways that makes her accomplishment all the more extraordinary.
Born in Savannah on the eve of the Civil War, Juliette Gordon came from a line of feisty women devoted to duty. Even as a child, Daisy cajoled her cousins into the Helpful Hands Club in a hapless effort to sew clothes for immigrant children. She married wealthy William Low, spent time in England hobnobbing with aristocrats but longed for solid work rather than life as a butterfly. Childless and struggling with deafness caused by bad medical treatments, Daisy amused herself through much of her 20s and 30s with antics such as standing on her head to shock her guests, or taking up wood-carving or, amazingly, iron-working. (She even forged the massive wrought iron gates for her estate and later had them sent to Savannah.)
Her husband’s philandering led to divorce proceedings that were still pending when he died, leaving his estate to his mistress. Daisy contested and won, which fixed her up financially, but she was still at loose ends when she met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who told her that she might find a useful sphere of work by getting involved in scouting. Here Low’s life and Cordery’s book get interesting.
Baden-Powell’s sister Agnes had established the Girl Guides in response to the 6,000 girls who showed up in makeshift uniforms in 1909 for the first Boy Scout rally. (They were called guides, not scouts, for fear that the same name would sissify the boys and make the girls too masculine). Low formed her own troop in a rural Scottish town in 1911 and then started two more in London. By the next year it was time to take scouting home to America.
In Savannah she enlisted everyone she knew, especially educators and members of the Kindergarten Association, one of many reform groups designed to assist the poor. Soon girls of all classes clamored to wear the uniform that showed they were special. Low insisted on including girls of all incomes, abilities and eventually races. As she relentlessly pushed forward, using her own funds to establish a national headquarters in Washington, D.C., Boy Scout leaders tried to block the use of the Scout name, but with Baden-Powell’s blessing Low ignored them while she traveled the country recruiting girls and, using family connections, enlisted society women as leaders.
War often hastens changes in women’s roles and makes those changes more acceptable. World War I did that for the Girl Scouts, which by then had troops in 150 cities from Boston to San Francisco. Girls earning badges in first aid, cartography and Morse code literally wore their competence on their sleeves. A few years later, the scouts went door to door selling Liberty Bonds – more than $6 million worth in one effort – winning them a government medal of recognition and making cookie drives look like, well, a piece of cake.
Cookie sales, those emblematic annual fundraisers, were launched on a massive scale in 1923 by then-Girl Scout president Lou Hoover, later First Lady, and were interrupted only by World War II. Now girls and their grown-up agents sell more than 200 million boxes annually.
In Cordery’s mass of detail, the spirit of Low can get lost. Not so in Kleiber’s volume. She uses scenes and sayings from Low’s life to illustrate chapters on such subjects as sisterhood, camping and self-knowledge. It’s here we learn that Low decorated her bonnets with vegetables, telling wealthy matrons she couldn’t afford new hats because Girls Scouts needed money. Kleiber’s glimpses of the founder are full of fun. And Low would certainly applaud helpful hints such as what to pack for a camping trip and how to stock first aid kits.
Low would also, I suspect, be pleased that her maxims live on: Scouting rises within you and inspires you to put forth your best. She certainly put forth hers – and 3.2 million Girl Scouts should thank her.