American reformer Juliette Gordon Low (1860-1927) was the founder of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America. With a mission of providing healthy activities for girls while instilling a sense of good citizenship, the Girls Scouts has grown to include millions of members in troops across the country.
Juliette Gordon Low was a wealthy socialite of the United States and Great Britain who spent most of her life enjoying the recreations of the privileged classes. However, after meeting the founder of the Boy Scouts, Sir Robert Baden-Powell, she discovered a social cause to which she would devote the rest of her days—the formation of a similar organization for girls in the United States. An enthusiastic organizer and fundraiser, she led the formation of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America in 1915, using her own fortune as the primary source of financial support for the group in its early years. By the time of her death, the Girl Scouts had become a successful national organization with thousands of members.
Low was born Juliette Magill Kinzie Gordon in Savannah, Georgia, on October 31, 1860. The second of six children, Low was part of a distinguished and wealthy family. Her mother, Eleanor Lytle Kinzie Gordon, hailed from Chicago and had written a book about the experiences of her adventurous father, a government agent who had worked on the western frontier among Native Americans. Low's father, William Washington Gordon II, had made his fortune as a cotton trader in the South. During Low's childhood, her father served in the Civil War as a Confederate officer; he later served the reunited nation as a general in the Spanish-American War. Low, who was known to her family as "Daisy," inherited traits from the personalities of both parents: like her mother, she possessed a great deal of charm and wit, but she also had her father's instinct for organization and leadership. Her talents were apparent in the active summers she would spend with her sisters and cousins at her aunt's estate in northern Georgia, where she took the lead in organizing camping and hunting trips. She also had a gift for artistic pursuits and enjoyed writing and acting in the plays that the children would put together.
Low was sent to private schools in Georgia, Virginia, and New York. In New York, Low pursued her artistic interests by continuing to write plays and act in dramatic productions; she also studied painting. After completing her schooling, she traveled to Europe, where she would spend part of each year for the rest of her life. It was on a trip to England that she began a courtship with the English millionaire William Mackay Low. For four years, the two carried on a romance, despite the disapproval of William Gordon, who considered his daughter's suitor to be a libertine. The couple was eventually married in Savannah, in December of 1886. As the wife of a wealthy landowner, Low was introduced to the highest levels of British society. Her husband was a friend of the Prince of Wales and Low had the honor of being presented to Queen Victoria at the royal court. The Lows entertained frequently at their Scottish estate as well as in England and the United States.
Over the coming years, however, Low found herself becoming increasingly lonely and frustrated. Her husband frequently traveled to exotic spots around the world for hunting expeditions and other adventures while Low remained at home. A back injury prevented Low from horseback riding, one of her favorite pursuits, so she returned to art to fill her days. She took up painting again and began working on larger projects such as carving a mantelpiece for one home and designing a set of iron gates for another. She also continued traveling, taking a female companion when her husband did not join her. By the early 1900s, the marriage was coming to an end. William Low's affair with another woman had become well-known, and in 1902 his wife agreed to begin divorce proceedings. Complications arose when William Low died before the divorce was settled and left his entire estate to his mistress. After months of legal negotiations, Low was finally awarded $500,000. That amount provided her with the means to continue her previous style of life, spending part of the year in London and Scotland and the colder months in the United States, particularly Savannah.
In 1911, when she was 51, Low's social circles brought her into contact with Sir Robert Baden-Powell, a hero of the Boer war who had founded the Boy Scouts organization. The two became good friends and Baden-Powell introduced Low to his sister, who had founded a similar group for girls known as the Girl Guides. The social aims of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides—to provide healthy activities for children while instilling a sense of responsible citizenship—struck a chord in Low, who soon founded her own Girl Guide troops in Scotland and England. Her enthusiasm for the cause quickly evolved into a desire to introduce the Girl Guides program in the United States.
Returning to Savannah, she established the first U.S. unit of the Girl Guides on March 12, 1912. Her group included two small troops of girls that met in the carriage house behind Low's home. The Girl Guides, dressed in a uniform of a sailor-style blouse, blue tie, navy skirt, and dark stockings, engaged in a variety of sports and outdoor activities such as camping. Other girls in Savannah were eager to join in the fun, and the response convinced Law that a nationwide organization should be formed. Her plans were interrupted, however, by the death of her father, to whom she had been greatly devoted. She spent the following year with her mother in England before returning to her work on the Girl Guides.
Low had hoped to form a group known as the Girl Scouts through a partnership with an already existing American group, the Campfire Girls, which had been founded in 1910. When this arrangement failed to materialize, Low sprang into action to make her dreams of a Girl Scouts organization a reality. She drafted several prominent Americans to serve on a board of directors, created a national headquarters, personally traveled to a number of states to launch organization efforts, and used her own money as the main source of funding. Her efforts came to fruition in 1915, when the Girl Scouts of America officially incorporated. Low began serving as the Girl Scouts' first president, a position she would hold for five years. By 1916, there were more than 7,000 girls participating in Girl Scouts.
The World War I years saw an enormous amount of growth in the Girl Scouts, which participated in a number of activities to help support the war effort. The public notice that this drew brought in new members and increased donations. But the rapidly expanding organization soon overtook Low's ability to adequately finance the group. While continuing to encourage generous donations from others, she also began instituting cost-cutting measures in her own home in order to provide money to her scouts. Some friends felt that her measures, such as not turning on the electric lights in the house until after five each day, would never save her enough to make up for the large amounts she spent on her girls' organization; other acquaintances suggested that such "hardships" were just an act to solicit more donations. Whatever the truth was behind these stories, Low's ultimate concern was always the Girl Scouts.
By 1920, the Girl Scouts had become so large that it required a full-time administrative staff to manage the duties that had previously been handled by volunteers. Low, expressing confidence in the new leaders, retired from her post as president with the title of "Founder," but continued many of her activities within the Girl Scouts. Although she was losing her hearing and was diagnosed with cancer a few years later, she traveled to England to attend the World Camp of the Girl Scouts in 1924 and volunteered to bring the event to New York state in 1926. She could barely disguise the pain she was suffering as she hosted the week-long World Camp in New York. Knowing that she did not have long to live, Low made a final trip to England to say goodbye to friends and then came home to Savannah. In tribute to her unflagging efforts to bring the Girl Scouts to children across the country, organization executives sent a telegram to her stating that she was "the best scout of them all." She died in Savannah on January 18, 1927. The Girl Scouts organization has continued to prosper since the death of Low, bringing her ideals to millions of girls in an organization that has reached every state in the nation.
Choate, Anne Hyde, and Helen Ferris, editors, Juliette Low and the Girl Scouts: The Story of an American Woman, 1860-1927, Doubleday, 1928.
Saxton, Martha, "The Best Girl Scout of Them All," American Heritage, June/July, 1982, pp. 38-47.
Schultz, Gladys D., and Daisy Gordon Lawrence, The Life of Juliette Low, J. B. Lippincott, 1958.