Juliette Gordon Low
|Juliette Gordon Low|
Juliette Gordon Low (1860-1927) in 1887
|Born||Juliette Magill Kinzie Gordon
October 31, 1860
|Died||January 17, 1927
|Known for||Founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA|
Juliette Gordon Low (October 31, 1860 – January 17, 1927) was the founder of Girl Scouts of the USA, with the help of Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouting Movement. Baden-Powell and Low shared both a love of travel and support of the Girl Guides. Juliette Low joined the Girl Guide movement, forming a group of Girl Guides in Scotland in 1911.
In 1912 she returned to the U.S., forming the first American Girl Guide troop in Savannah, Georgia, that year. In 1915 the United States' Girl Guides became known as the Girl Scouts, and Juliette Gordon Low was the first president. She stayed active until the time of her death.
Her birthday, October 31, is commemorated by the Girl Scouts as "Founder's Day."
Juliette Magill Kinzie Gordon was born on October 31, 1860, in Savannah, Georgia. She was named after her grandmother, Juliette Augusta Magill Kinzie, and nicknamed Daisy (a common nickname at the time) by her uncle. She was the second of six children born to William "Willie" Washington Gordon II, a cotton broker with the firm Tison & Gordon (later renamed to W. W. Gordon & Company), and Eleanor "Nellie" Lytle Kinzie, a writer whose family played a role in the founding of Chicago.
Six months after her birth, her father joined the Confederate States Army to fight in the American Civil War. She moved with her mother and two sisters to Thunderbolt, Georgia, in 1864, due to the close proximity of Union troops to Savannah. After the Union victory in Savannah the same year, her family received many visits from General Sherman, who was a friend of her uncle. Sherman arranged an escort to take Mrs. Low and her daughters to Chicago in March 1865. Upon arriving in Chicago, Gordon Low became sick with brain fever, although she escaped any severe complications and recovered. A few months later, after President Andrew Johnson issued the amnesty proclamation, her father reunited with the family and they were able to move back to Savannah.
As a child, Gordon Low was accident-prone, and she suffered many injuries and illnesses. In 1866, her mother mentioned in a letter that "Daisy fell out of bed – on her head, as usual..." The same year, she broke two of her fingers so severely that her parents considered having them amputated. She also suffered frequent earaches and recurring bouts of malaria.
Gordon Low spent more time pursuing art and poetry than she did working on school work. She planned and put on plays and started a newspaper with her cousins called The Malbone Bouquet, which featured some of her early poetry. She formed a club, also with her cousins, with the goal of helping others. The Helpful Hands Club learned to sew and tried to make clothes for the children of Italian immigrants. She was dubbed "Crazy Daisy" by her family and friends due to her eccentricities. Her cousin Caroline described her by saying, "While you never knew what she would do next, she always did what she made up her mind to do..."
Gordon Low’s parents raised her with traditional Southern values, and they emphasized the importance of duty, obedience, loyalty, and respect. By the age of twelve she had started boarding school, attending several boarding schools during her teen years, including Miss Emmett’s school in New Jersey, the Virginia Female Institute, the Edgehill School, and Mademoiselles Charbonniers, a French finishing school in New York. While studying at Edgehill, she joined the secret group Theta Tau (based on the sorority of the same name), where members held meetings and earned badges. In 1880, after she had finished boarding school, Gordon Low took painting lessons in New York. Among her teachers was Robert Walter Weir, a prominent landscape painter.
After the death of her sister Alice at the end of 1880, Gordon Low moved back to Savannah to take over the household duties while her mother was grieving. During this period she met William Mackay Low, the son of a family friend, and they began courting in secret. William Low left Savannah to study at Oxford, and they didn't meet again until almost three years later in 1884. Gordon Low traveled through Europe while they were separated, and she learned several new skills including shorthand, bareback riding, and hunting partridge. In late 1885, William Low asked for her hand in marriage.
The Lows' Savannah nuptials were held on her parents' wedding anniversary, December 21, 1886. The couple spent their honeymoon in Europe, then they leased property in London and Scotland, spending the social season in London and the hunting season in Scotland. Much of their first two years of marriage was spent apart from each other, due to her medical problems and his long hunting trips and gambling. The long separations, combined with Gordon Low’s inability to have children, caused their relationship to become strained.
Gordon Low spent her time painting, and she learned woodworking and metalworking. She also designed and built iron gates for her home in Warwickshire, Wellesbourne House. She hosted many parties and events at the house and received visits from HRH Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, who was a friend of her husband, and Rudyard Kipling, whose wife was related to her mother. She also devoted time to charity work, although her husband was against it. She made regular visits to a woman with leprosy, fed and cared for the poor in a nearby village, and joined the local nursing association.
In 1901, Anna Bridges Bateman, the widow of Sir Hugh Alleyne Saceverell-Bateman, stayed as a guest at the Lows' home in Scotland. Gordon Low discovered her husband's affair with Bateman, whereupon she left to stay with friends and family. She worried that he planned to divorce her, so she sent him a telegram asking for a year before making any final decisions. Although he initially didn't want a divorce or a separation, he wrote Gordon Low a year later to ask that they live apart permanently, which she agreed to.
Gordon Low's husband began withholding money from her unless she agreed to a divorce. After talking to a divorce lawyer, she learned that for a divorce to be granted, she would need to prove adultery and desertion, or adultery and cruelty. In the case of adultery, Bateman would need to be named, which would have social repercussions for all involved parties. This caused the divorce proceedings to move slowly.
In late 1902, Gordon Low received money from her husband for the first time in two years. She used it and her savings to rent a house in London. Her husband committed to a support agreement in 1903, which was to award her 2,500 pounds a year, the Low home in Savannah, and stocks and securities. Later that year, she purchased her own home in London, along with the house next door, which she rented out for income.
After her husband suffered a possible stroke, Gordon Low temporarily called off the divorce. She felt it was wrong to divorce him while he couldn’t defend himself; the proceedings resumed in January 1905 when his condition improved. William Low died from a seizure in June 1905, before the divorce was finalized. After the funeral, it was revealed that he had left almost everything to Bateman, and that he had revoked his 1903 support deal with Gordon Low. William Low's sisters contested the will, with the support of Gordon Low. She ultimately received a sum of money, the Low house in Savannah with its surrounding land, and stocks and securities.
Involvement with the Girl Guides
After the death of her husband, Gordon Low traveled, took sculpting classes, and did charity work while looking for a project that she could focus her time and skills on. In May 1911 she met Sir Robert Baden-Powell at a party and was inspired by the Boy Scouts, a program that he had organized. At the time, the Boy Scouts had 40,000 members throughout Europe and the United States, and stressed the importance of military preparedness and having fun, two values that she appreciated. Gordon Low and Baden-Powell became close friends, and spent a large amount of time together over the next year.
In August 1911, Gordon Low became involved with the Girl Guides, an offshoot of the Boy Scouts for girls that was headed by Agnes Baden-Powell, Sir Robert Baden Powell's sister. She formed a Girl Guides patrol near her home in Scotland, where she encouraged the girls to become self-sufficient by learning how to spin wool and care for livestock. She also taught them knot tying, how to read a map, knitting, cooking, and first aid, and had her friends in the military teach the girls drilling and signaling, as well as camping. She went to London for the winter in 1911, and while she was there she organized two new Girl Guides patrols.
Start of the American Girl Guides
The next year, Gordon Low and Baden-Powell took a trip to the United States in order to spread the Scouting movement. She hoped to spread the movement to her hometown, Savannah, as a way to help girls learn practical skills and build character. When she arrived, she made a phone call to her cousin Nina Pape, a local educator, saying, "I’ve got something for the girls of Savannah, and all America, and all the world, and we’re going to start it tonight." Shortly after March 1912, Gordon Low formed the first two American Girl Guides patrols, registering eighteen girls.
The early growth of the Girl Guides movement in the United States was due to Gordon Low's extensive social connections, and most of her early involvement was spent recruiting new members and leaders. She advertised in newspapers and magazines, and recruited her family and friends. Baden-Powell also put her in contact with people interested in Girl Guiding, including Louise Carnegie. After forming the first American troops, she described herself as "deep in Girl Guides," and by the next year, she had released the first American Girl Guides manual, titled How Girls Can Help Their Country, which was based on Scouting for Boys by Robert Baden-Powell and How Girls Can Help to Build Up the Empire by Agnes Baden-Powell.
Gordon Low established the first headquarters in a remodeled carriage house behind the home in Savannah that she inherited from her husband. The headquarters contained meeting rooms for the local Girl Guide patrols, and the lot outside was used for marching and signaling drills and sports, including basketball. Edmund Strudwick Nash, who rented the main house from Gordon Low, offered to pay rent on the carriage house as his contribution to the organization, becoming one of the American Girl Guide's first benefactors. Nash's son, Ogden Nash, immortalized "Mrs Low's House" in one of his poems.
Gordon Low traveled along the east coast, spreading Girl Guiding to other communities, before returning to Savannah to speak with President Taft, who was making a visit to the Gordon home. She hoped to convince Taft that his daughter Helen should become a patron for the Girl Guides, but she was unsuccessful.
Growth of the American Girl Scouts
Many competing organizations for girls that claimed to be the closest model to Boy Scouting were forming, and Gordon Low believed that gaining support from prominent people would help legitimize her organization as the official sister organization to the Boy Scouts. Her biggest competition was the Camp Fire Girls, which was formed in part by James E. West, the Chief Executive of the Boy Scouts of America and a strong proponent of strict gender roles. In March of 1912, Gordon Low wrote to the Camp Fire Girls inviting them to merge into the Girl Guides, but they declined even after Baden-Powell suggested that they reconsider. West considered many of the activities that the Girl Guides participated in to be gender-inappropriate, and was concerned that the public would question the masculinity of the Boy Scouts if they participated in similar activities.
Although the Girl Guides were growing, the Camp Fire Girls were growing at a faster rate, so Gordon Low traveled to England to seek counsel from the British Girl Guides. By the time she returned to America in 1913, she had a plan to spread Girl Guiding nationwide by changing the name from Girl Guides to Girl Scouts, establishing a national headquarters, and recruiting patrons outside of Georgia. Upon returning to Savannah, she learned that the Savannah Girl Guides had already renamed themselves to Girl Scouts because “Scout” reminded them of America’s pioneer ancestry. West objected to the name change, saying that it trivialized the name of scout and would cause older Boy Scouts to quit. Baden-Powell gave Gordon Low his support on her use of the term scout, although he preferred the term Guide for the British Girl Guides.
In 1913, Gordon Low set up the Girl Scouts national headquarters in Washington DC, and hired her friend Edith Johnston to be the National Executive Secretary. The national headquarters served as the “central information dispenser” for Girl Scouting, as well as the place where girls could purchase their badges and the newly published handbook, How Girls Can Help Their Country.
Gordon Low recruited leaders and members in many different states and spoke with every group that she could. Around the same time, she designed and patented the trefoil badge, although West claimed that the trefoil belonged to the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts had no right to use it. She traveled back to London in the summer, where she met King George V and Queen Mary of Teck, and received the Girl Guide Thanks Badge from Princess Louise for promoting Guiding.
Gordon Low also formed the Honorary Committee of Girl Scouts, and elected her family and friends to the committee. By using her connections, she was able to convince Susan Ludlow Parish, Eleanor Roosevelt’s godmother; Mina Miller Edison, the wife of Thomas Edison; and Bertha Woodward, the wife of the House of Representatives majority leader, to become patrons. Although she had received the support of many patrons, Gordon Low still funded most Girl Scout expenses herself.
World War I
On February 13, 1915, she sailed back to the United States on the RMS Lusitania. When she arrived, she continued her work for the Girl Scouts. At the time, the Girl Scouts had 73 patrons, and 2,400 registered members. Gordon Low decided to build a stronger central organization for the Girl Scouts by writing a new constitution that formed an executive committee and a National Council. Gordon Low held the first National Council meeting under the new name, Girl Scouts, Inc. on June 10, 1915, and was elected the first president of the organization.
The Girl Scouts grew larger after the United States entered into World War I. Gordon Low continued recruiting new members, and publicized the Girl Scouts through newspapers, magazines, events, and film. In 1916, Gordon Low moved the Girl Scout headquarters from Washington DC to New York City. The same year, Gordon Low returned to England to fundraise for and open a home for relatives of wounded soldiers, where she volunteered 3 nights a week. By November, she was back in the United States continuing her work with the Girl Scouts.
In response to the thrift program, a program enacted by the United States Food Administration with the goal of teaching women how to conserve food, Girl Scouts in Washington DC began growing and harvesting their own food and canning perishable goods. Herbert Hoover wrote to Gordon Low, thanking her for the contributions of the Girl Scouts and expressing hope that other Girl Scouts in the country would follow suit. She responded by organizing Girl Scouts to help the Red Cross by making surgical dressings and knitting clothing for soldiers. They also picked oakum, swept workrooms, created scrapbooks for wounded soldiers, and made smokeless trench candles for soldiers to heat their food with.
By the end of 1917, Gordon Low convinced Lou Henry Hoover to become the National Vice President of the Girl Scouts, and Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, President Wilson’s second wife, to become the Honorary President of the Girl Scouts.
Promotion of international scouting
After World War I ended, interest in the Girl Guides began to grow in many different countries. In response, Olave Baden-Powell, the Chief Guide, created the International Council of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts as a way to bring together the different communities of Guides and Scouts across the world. The first meeting took place at the Girl Guide headquarters in London, and Gordon Low attended as the representative for the United States.
Gordon Low stepped down as the National President of the Girl Scouts in 1920 so that she could devote more of her time to promoting Guiding and Scouting on an international scale. She attended as many meetings of the International Council as she was able, and would underwrite the travel of foreign delegates so that they would also be able to attend. She also assisted Olave Baden-Powell with converting 65 acres of land into a campsite for the Girl Guides. Gordon Low furnished a bungalow near the main house on the land and named it "The Link". The name was meant to signify the bond between the British Girl Guides and the American Girl Scouts.
Although she was no longer the President, she still remained an active presence in the organization. She worked on and appeared in The Golden Eaglet, the first Girl Scout movie. At a fundraising campaign in New York during Girl Scout Week, Gordon Low dropped pamphlets onto a crowd of people from an airplane. On October 31st that same week, the Girl Scouts celebrated the first Founder’s Day, a day to celebrate Gordon Low and her accomplishments. In 1922, the Girl Scout convention took place in Gordon Low’s hometown, Savannah. She helped plan and organize the convention by renting an auditorium, planning appearances by professional athletes, the mayor, and the school superintendent, and hiring a film company. After the 1922 convention, she began planning Cloudlands, a camping facility in Georgia that was designed to train leaders and girls together. Cloudlands was later renamed to Camp Juliette Low.
Low developed breast cancer in 1923, but she kept it a secret. She died in Savannah on January 17, 1927, at the age of 66. She was buried in her Girl Scout uniform with a note in her pocket stating, "You are not only the first Girl Scout, but the best Girl Scout of them all." Her remains were interred in Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia.
In 1948 a postage stamp honoring Low, Scott catalogue number 974, was issued by the United States. Over 63 million were printed, making this a common issue. At the time the Post Office had a policy of not honoring civic organizations; and it took a joint resolution of Congress, with the approval of President Truman, to have the stamp produced. (The National Postal Museum suggests that it may have helped that Bess Truman was honorary president of the Girl Scouts.)
In 1979, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
The Girl Scouts celebrate Juliette Gordon Low's October 31 birthday each year, as "Founder's Day".
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- Juliette Gordon Low Approved Die Proof
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- Juliette’s Presidential Medal of Freedom
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- National Women's Hall of Fame
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- Works by Juliette Gordon Low at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Juliette Gordon Low at Find A Grave