Juliette Gordon Low (1860-1927)
Geez, the things my Girl Scout handbooks never mentioned.
I knew, of course, that in 1912, Juliette Gordon Low had founded the Girl Scouts of the United States of America, inspired and encouraged by her friend Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had established the Boy Scouts, and the “Girl Guides” program in England.
I knew that she’d been born to a wealthy family in Savannah, Georgia just before the Civil War, and had a life of privilege. I vaguely recalled that she’d been nicknamed “Daisy,” and I had a memory, based on a half-remembered painting, that she was beautiful.
But there was plenty I didn’t know, things (understandably) glossed over in the bio we learned in Girl Scout meetings.
The “Daisy” nickname? Her family called her “Crazy Daisy,” due to her ebullience, optimism, and predilection for joking and silliness.
But the nickname also came to reflect other troubles Daisy was having; a series of ear infections she suffered throughout her youth affected her hearing. When she went to a doctor for relief, he inadvertently ruptured her eardrum.
Then, on her wedding day, a piece of rice thrown after the ceremony by a well-wisher somehow became lodged in her ear; the damage was so great that she lost her hearing in that ear. Eventually, she lost most of the hearing in her “good” ear as well.
As her biographer Stacy Cordery noted to the Christian Science Monitor, Juliette Gordon Low’s hearing loss reinforced the “Crazy Daisy” nickname: “…she’s making mistakes through no fault of her own. She can’t hear. So part of [not] hearing [well] is that someone says ‘XYZ’ and you respond ‘ABC.’ It makes you respond in a way that other people around you interpret as a little bit odd.”
And maybe Juliette Gordon Low should have considered that errant grain of rice a warning: she moved to England with her husband, wealthy cotton merchant William Mackay Low. Soon, William Low started palling around with playboy Prince Edward VII and his party posse, all prone to prodigious feats of concupiscence, alcohol consumption, gambling, and general excess.
Not unexpectedly, William Low soon had a mistress, and began spending more and more time away from his wife. When Juliette Gordon Low, not to mention the public at large, became aware of the situation, William Low asked her for a divorce. Divorce in the early 20th century was a more arduous –and humiliating — process than it is now, and so Juliette Low suggested that she and her husband separate instead, so that they had time to work out details of a divorce.
But before divorce proceedings began, William Low died as the result of a stroke. And to Juliette’s horror, his will left his entire estate and fortune to his mistress.
Even William Low’s sisters were appalled, and assisted Juliette’s attempts to challenge the will. She didn’t win her case outright — but she did get some of the money to which she was entitled, and her husband’s home in Savannah, Georgia.
After her husband’s death — and more importantly, after meeting Sir Robert Baden-Powell — she returned to Savannah. Her career options were limited, as they were for most American women at the time, but she was on fire with an idea. She called a distant cousin and said, “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!”
That “something” was the Girl Scouts, of course, which Juliette imagined as an organization for girls from all cultures, economic classes, ethnicities, and degrees of physical abilities. Through the organization she founded, she made her own experiences from a privileged childhood — athletic activities, exposure to the arts, adventures in nature — available to girls of all backgrounds.
And as for the obstacles and difficulties she went through — well, Juliette Gordon Low turned them into assets.notes in the Washington Post, “Later in life, Daisy would use her deafness to her advantage, often pretending to not understand people when they said they couldn’t volunteer or donate to her beloved Girl Scouts.”
She even turned the shattering experience of her marriage as an inspiration. As her biographer Stacy Cordery told public broadcasting’s Diane Rehm, “…the lesson that Daisy learned from this, to answer the question about how did she come to want to be involved in an organization to help young women, is Daisy Low learned that life was not predictable. And even though you’ve done everything right, you’d grown up in good circumstances, you’d married the man you loved, you’d been faithful and loyal, sometimes you wound up cuckolded and then widowed.”
Therefore, ingenuity and self-reliance are good attributes to have — and to teach to others. And providing bigger and bigger challenges to test the people you teach? That’s good, too.
You know what? The Girl Scouts should stamp Juliette Low’s profile on their Trefoil cookies. More people should know more about her.
The website of Stacy Cordery, author of Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts, was an invaluable resource and so I’m mentioning it first and most prominently; just for one example, it includes a image of Juliette Gordon Low’s doctor’s sketch of the inside of her ear (JGL’s, not Stacy Cordery’s), which I found morbidly fascinating, if not ultimately useful for this profile.
Girl Scouts of the United States of America. “Juliette Gordon Low.”
Kehe, Marjorie. “That ‘Crazy Daisy’ who started the Girl Scouts,” (an interview with Stacy A. Cordery, author of Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts), CSMonitor.com, March 12, 2012
Juliette Gordon Low, who had no children of her own, started Girl Scouts in 1912.” Washington Post, March 9, 2012.“
Rehm, Diane (interviewer). The Diane Rehm Show (radio show transcript). “Stacy Cordery: ‘Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts.’” Dianerehm.org, February 23,2012, 11AM.
Sims, Anastatia. “Juliette Gordon Low (1860-1927).” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 03 April 2015. Web. 09 March 2017.
Also, this entry was fueled by a truly impressive amount of Trefoils and Samoas. For research purposes, naturally.
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