The life of Juliette Gordon Low is the story of a woman who moved from a childhood of southern upper-class privilege to accomplish a major service to people of all classes and races: the founding of the Girl Scouts. She was born into the wealthy Gordon Family of Savannah on the eve of the Civil War. Her socialite mother was impatient with the trouble of bearing children and could not take seriously her husband’s loyalty to the Confederacy. The tension between social appearance and hard reality was felt by little Juliette (known as “Daisy” by family and friends) from her earliest years. All through her childhood, she showed a rebellious, tomboyish streak that kept her from ever entirely fitting the conventional image of the aristocratic Southern Belle. In 1886, Juliette married William Mackay Low, a wealthy Englishman, at Christ Church Episcopal in Savannah, Georgia. Although the couple moved to England, Juliette divided her time between the British Isles and America. During the Spanish-American War, she came back to America to aid in the war effort. Following the war, she returned to England to a disintegrating marriage. The Lows were separated at the time of her husband’s death in 1905.
At this point, she was fortunate to meet Sir Robert Baden-Powell, a popular hero of the Boer War. He was making good use of his heroic charisma to found and promote the Boy Scouts. Mrs. Low was thoroughly captivated by his values of self-discipline and personal honor and his success in communicating these values to the Boy Scouts. She was troubled, however, that he could not find much place for girls in his plans. Like others of his time, he could not see girls learning to live outdoors and be leaders, much less learning to follow careers outside the home. He would not permit girls’ groups to be called “scouts” at all, although he authorized a few troops of Girl Guides under the direction of his sister. Juliette Low did all she could with troops of the Girl Guides in England, but found the program too restricted for her high hopes.
In 1912, she returned to Savannah determined to put everything she had into those hopes. On the night of her return, she contacted an old friend and cousin and said, “I’ve got something for the girls of Savannah, and all America, and all the world, and we’re going to start it tonight!” On her own property and with her own wealth, she began Girl Scouts, U.S.A., with a group of eighteen Savannah girls. On a tennis court shielded by curtains, she put them in bloomers and put them through a physical fitness program. She trained them in the basics of independent living and service to others, preparation for careers as well as for home and family. She broke the traditional walls that restricted the life of the southern lady and prepared girls to compete and succeed in any endeavor they chose.
As the movement spread like wildfire across the country, she directed it into paths of community and national service. In World War I, she had Girl Scout troops working with the Red Cross, raising vegetables in their backyard gardens, and selling Liberty Bonds. Presidents and other national leaders showered her with honors. By the end of her life there were some 167,000 Girl Scouts in the United States and by its 100th anniversary in 2012, the Girl Scouts had more than fifty million members worldwide. That year, President Barack Obama awarded “Daisy” a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a president can bestow on a civilian.
In the early days, Juliette Low shocked her fashionable contemporaries by decorating her hat with parsley and carrots. She would tell them proudly that she had put her whole fortune into the Girl Scouts. In later years, the Girl Scout uniform was her dress for all occasions. She lies buried in that uniform in Savannah. In her breast-pocket is a note from the head of the Girl Scouts, U.S.A. : “You are not only the first Girl Scout but the best Girl Scout of them all.”