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 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 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 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, Ga., 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 Clubin a hapless effort to sew clothes for immigrant children. She married wealthy William Low and 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 woodcarving or, amazingly, ironworking. She even forged the massive wrought-iron gates for her estate and 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.