Juliette Gordon Low (1860–1927)

Juliette Magill Kinzie Gordon, known as Juliette Gordon Low, was the founder and First Lady of the Girl Scouts, an organization she started with just 18 girls in Savannah, Georgia, in 1912. Arriving home from England where she had learned of the Girl Guides with a copy of the English Girl Guide handbook in her suitcase, Juliette Low was convinced that American girls should be given the same opportunity to develop physically, mentally, and spiritually. She inaugurated a girl-led program, the first of its kind in the United States. Today, there are more than 3.2 million American girls who belong to the Girl Scouts, and 50 million American women who are alumnae.

In 1912, Juliette Low’s mind was bubbling with plans for this new organization, so by the time she arrived, she was ready to go straight to the girls themselves. She had a very can-do-now attitude. When she got the idea to start the program, she picked the day, March 12, 1912, and 18 girls to sign up, with this famously inviting pitch: “Come right over. I’ve got something for the girls of Savannah, and all America and all the world, and we are going to start tonight!” She called it Girl Guides, and her niece, Daisy Gordon, was the first registered member. The name was changed to Girl Scouts the following year.

From the beginning, Juliette brought girls of all backgrounds into the out of doors and stressed the development of self-reliance and resourcefulness. In 1913, the first Girl Scout handbook came out, How Girls Can Help Their Country by W. J. Hoxie. It was adapted from the Girl Guides handbook by Agnes Baden-Powell and Sir Robert Baden-Powell, and published by Knickerbocker Press. The year 1913 was also when the name Girl Guides was replaced by Girl Scouts, which has become iconic as an organization and as the tag for Girl Scout cookies, which are sold nationally according to strict programmatic guidelines.

Juliette Low wanted all girls to participate and in shaping their own Girl Scout program, but she also had very definite ideas and gave lots of advice about what that should include. Career direction was important, but so was homemaking. Here are some excerpts on career advice: “Really well-educated American [women] make a good income by taking up translating, dispensing to a doctor in a hospital, as stockbrokers, house decorators, or agents, managers of laundries, accountants and architects.... Now it is within the power of American girls with perseverance and close study to rise up to distinction as a doctor.” Another forward-thinking recommendation was the pursuit of careers in aviation.

Juliette Low was known for her strong and somewhat quirky personality, as illustrated in many anecdotes about her poor driving. She once drove a car—not knowing how to use the power steering or brakes, into the dining room of a house. She later told her brother Bill that she said nothing, because the family was eating dinner, and she didn’t want to interrupt them.

Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts in the United States in 1912. Over 50 million American women have been Girl Scouts.

Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts in the United States in 1912. Over 50 million American women have been Girl Scouts. (Library of Congress)

She worked hard on the American front in the early years to build Girl Scouts, but in 1920, she resigned as president and took on the title of founder. She turned her attention to what later became WAGGS, the worldwide association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, to foster peace, unity, and understanding. “Girl Scouts and Girl Guides can be the magic thread which links the youth of the world together.”

A Girl Scout in the 21st century might join the organization as a “Daisy,” for kindergartners and first graders, ages five to seven. Then she could graduate to Brownie status, for second and third graders, ages six to nine. Girl Scout Juniors are in the fourth and fifth grades, ages 9 to 11, and Girl Scout Cadettes are sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, ages 11 to 14. Girl Scout Seniors are ages 14 to 16, in the 9th and 10th grades, and the highest level are Girl Scout Ambassadors, 11th and 12th grade girls ages 16 to 18. Each level has its own appropriate uniform and requirements. There are also “Juliettes,” a level for girls who want to participate but live where there are no organized troops, though this level is being phased out. Adult members are leaders and volunteers.

Girl Scouts at every level work to earn badges, which signify their achievement in a wide variety of activities. For example, if she is interested in the outdoors, she can earn badges in hiking, camping, trail blazing, and more. For “Financial Literacy,” she can earn a badge in “Budgeting” or “Financing My Future.” There are badges for the Cookie Business (Peanut Butter Patties, anyone?) for “Meet Your Customers” and “Cookie CEO.” Scouts can earn badges in woodworking as well as cooking, car care as well as Web site design, first aid, astronomy, animal care, and public policy. The idea is to allow girls to explore their talents and build their skills.

Juliette Gordon was born in Savannah, Georgia, on October 31, 1860. Nicknamed “Daisy,” she was the second of six children of Eleanore Kinzie Gordon and William Washington Gordon. The Gordon family were early settlers in Georgia, and the Kinzies played an important role in the founding of Chicago.

Daisy Gordon’s artistic and athletic talents were nurtured in her idyllic childhood home, which was restored in 1953 and given national historic landmark status in 1965. Referred to with reverence as “the Birthplace,” it is officially called the Juliette Gordon Low Girl Scout National Center. So, how did this daughter of Southern comfort and privilege go on to found the largest national women’s organization ever? Tracing early tragedies and problems with her marriage lend more insight to her success than visiting the happier times of her childhood.

Apparently, hearing loss ran in Daisy’s family. In 1885, she lost the hearing in her first ear after insisting that her doctor treat her for mild loss with silver nitrate, a “fad” remedy. Reluctantly, he agreed, and the nitrate did permanent damage. A year later, Juliette was married on December 21, 1886, to William MacKay Low, a wealthy Englishman. In what could be described as an inauspicious start to her marriage, she lost most of the hearing in her second ear when a rice grain was thrown, lodged in her inner ear, festered, and caused almost complete deafness in that ear, not to mention a ruined honeymoon.

Juliette and William or “Billow” moved to Wellesbourne House in Wickshire, rented homes in London, and had a hunting lodge in Scotland. William was the son of a wealthy English cotton manufacturer who had business interests in Savannah. Although she led the life of a great lady, foxhunting, being presented twice in Queen Victoria’s court, and as a star of the London social season, the marriage was rocky from the start. William was a “lady’s man.” Still, Juliette enjoyed entertaining and her guestbook included the names of the Prince of Wales, Duke of Warwick, Jennie Churchill, and a slew of “PBs,” or professional beauties.

Juliette had become strong in overcoming her deafness, using hearing devices of the day, such as electronic hearing horns and a variety of periforms. Perhaps this strength of character allowed her in 1901 to finally agree to a divorce after returning from travel and discovering that her husband’s mistress, Mrs. Anna Bateman, had taken up residence in their home. Juliette’s husband died in 1905 before the divorce was final and had left all of his estate to his mistress. Juliette, with the aid of her lawyer and brother, was able to successfully contest the will. Juliette won a large cash settlement and the Low residence in Savannah.

Leaving the tragedy of William behind, she began preparation, unknowingly, for the role that will make her famous and influential to generations of girls to come. In letters to family, her artistic spirit is almost eclipsed by her love of travel. In September, 1910, she wrote to her sister Mabel that she wanted to settle her affairs at home (Savannah), so that she could settle down and study sculpture in Paris—“Once I start, I won’t want to interrupt it to come to America.” However, she traveled to the United States, Canada, Egypt, and London before settling in Paris. She also traveled with many “helpers,” servants who lugged and transported her many trunks, as was the custom of the day for women of her station. She did not have an interest in exhibiting her work, but saw it as a way of making her life more serious. This period in her life was more adventurous than purposeful.

It was an exciting time of change and transition. Artists like George Braque, Henri Matisse, and Paul Klee were revolutionizing modern art, while at the same time, in China, the old political system—the Manchu dynasty of 600 years—had fallen. In 1912, the presidential election in the United States was wildly unpredictable, with choices being William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Eugene Debs, and (the winner) Theodore Roosevelt.

Juliette’s life took a new direction when she met Sir Robert Baden-Powell in England in 1911. An English general and war hero, he was the founder of the Boy Scouts. A mutual friend, Neville Smyth, Powell’s first cousin, introduced them. Baden-Powell and Daisy shared several interests, including poetry and sculpture. Boy Scouts had caught on fast and spread to other countries. In England, girls took the initiative to form groups similar to what their brothers had joined. Baden-Powell asked his sister Agnes to start a formal organization for the girls, the Girl Guides.

Juliette Low developed breast cancer in 1923, but kept it a secret and continued to work hard for Girl Scouts. She died in Savannah on January 17, 1927, and was buried in Girl Scout uniform in Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah. Though she was childless, she was survived by many relatives and has many descendants of nieces and nephews who are alive today and live in Savannah, Boston, Denver, New York City, and other cities.

Juliette Gordon Low’s legacy touches the lives of thousands of present-day Girl Scouts. It also reaches thousands of tourists who visit the three historic sites that relate to her life. The famous Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace is one of the most visited house museums in Georgia. She inherited the Andrew Low House in 1905 after the death of her husband William. The Girl Scout First Headquarters is the former carriage house of the Andrew Low family. It was converted to “club rooms” for the first girls who became Girl Guides (later, Girl Scouts), back in 1912. Upon her death, Juliette willed this property to the local Savannah Girl Scouts.

The Girl Scout program, which emphasizes self-improvement, civic and community involvement, leadership, and character, got its start with Juliette Gordon Low and her far-reaching vision. While the system and structure of program delivery and its components has changed with the times, its essential character and messages are intact. Juliette’s vision holds strong.

In addition to her active role in founding and leading Girl Scouts in the United States from 1912 until the early1920s, Juliette Low’s influence was commemorated through many posthumous honors, including:

Where Girl Scouts are Today

In its heyday (1990s through early part of this decade), more than 300 local and regional Girl Scout councils served more than 1.2 million girls and young women, through clubs, groups, and sororities.

Juliette Low always emphasized self-sufficiency and collaboration. Through its dozens of informal educational activities, girls today continue to build skills, create community, fulfill civic ideals, and contribute to making a global and local difference in their worlds. Whether through working with adult leaders to take part in the annual Girl Scout cookie campaign, pursuing avocations and interests in the arts, sports, science, and technology, or dozens of service projects, all girls, regardless of their abilities, can take part in Girl Scouts, adhering to Juliette Low’s visionary invitation, “I’ve got something... it’s for all the girls.”

—Sheila Lewis


Guide Books for Girl Scout Cadettes, Seniors and Ambassadors. Girl Scouts of U.S.A. http://www.girlscouts.org/program/gs_central/what_is_gs/11_17.asp

“Juliette Gordon Low.” Points of Light Institute. http://www.pointsoflight.org/recognition/extra-mile/juliette-gordon-low .

“Juliette Gordon Low.” Women of the Hall of Fame. National Women’s Hall of Fame. http://greatwomen.org/women.php

“Who We Are.” Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. http://www.girlscouts.org/who_we_are/history/low_biography/ .