In Savannah, Georgia, 100 years ago Juliette Gordon Low gathered 18 girls who she thought would enjoy crafts, sports, the outdoors and just being together.
That may seem similar to what many of you do today, and it should: That was the first meeting of what would become the Girl Scouts of the USA. But life was very different in 1912: There were no computers, cellphones or even televisions. Women and girls wore more-formal clothes, and women were fighting for the right to vote in elections. But even though they lived in a different time, these early Girl Scouts were interested in doing community service, being part of a sisterhood and having fun, just as they are now.
Low, who was nicknamed “Daisy,” had grown up as a wealthy Southern belle. She enjoyed painting and performing in plays. Daisy loved animals and had many throughout her life, including dogs, cats and a parrot. She met and married a handsome young man named William Mackay Low, whom she called “Billow.” Together they moved to England in 1887, where Daisy met Queen Victoria and the couple lived an aristocratic life. But she also had some difficulties.
When she was in her 20s, Daisy became partially deaf in one ear when an infection wasn’t treated properly. Then, on her wedding day, a grain of rice became lodged in her other ear, which eventually caused her to lose most of the hearing in that ear as well. 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.
Daisy’s marriage started well but became unhappy. Billow wanted to divorce, but he died in 1905 before that happened.
After Billow died, Daisy was lost. They had no children, and she wasn’t sure what to do with the rest of her life. Then one day, she happened to be seated next to a charming man at a luncheon in London. He was Sir Robert Baden-Powell, whom everyone called “B-P,” and he had founded the Boy Scouts just a few years earlier. He had a problem: Girls — thousands of them — were trying to join the Boy Scouts. They showed up at a big rally with homemade uniforms and signed in with their initials. He wanted there to be a group for girls, but he needed help running it. As Daisy and B-P talked, Daisy, who was now in her early 50s, became interested in starting a scouting group for girls, not only in England but also in the United States.
When she returned to Georgia, Daisy telephoned her cousin and said: “Come right over! I’ve got something for the girls of Savannah, and all America, and all the world, and we’re going to start it tonight!”
The first Girl Scouts got to know Daisy personally, and they thought of her as a quirky, funny fairy godmother type of person who would stand on her head at meetings and tell spooky stories around the campfire. Daisy liked to ask the girls what they thought and what they wanted to do, rather than telling them.
From the beginning, Daisy wanted the Girl Scouts to be inclusive, meaning that it would be open to girls of any race, background or financial situation. The girls would be encouraged to be independent, to make their own choices and to develop their talents and skills. They would also be challenged to learn new things. Daisy thought it was important for the girls to spend time outdoors, so camping, swimming and playing sports such as basketball were early activities.
Some of the first Girl Scout badges show that the girls also worked on learning first aid, cooking, map-reading and knot-tying. Badges were created to show that a girl was proficient in a skill or subject, meaning she had learned a lot about it and had become good at it. Badges — there are 136 of them now — are then sewn or ironed on a Girl Scout uniform.
Around 1917, the girls started selling cookies, which has become an important fundraiser for troops and the whole organization as well, as a real-life lesson in how money is earned.
Just as Daisy had discovered herself by founding the Girl Scouts, she helped the girls develop into stronger young women. Since that first meeting in Georgia, 50 million girls have become scouts. Daisy died in 1927, but the group she started 100 years ago means that she will always be remembered.
Shannon Henry Kleiber, a former Washington Post reporter, is a Girl Scout leader for her daughter’s troop. Her book, “On My Honor: Real Life Lessons From America’s First Girl Scout,” will be published this month by Sourcebooks.