As many former Daisies and Brownies know, the Girl Scouts of the USA are celebrating their 100th Anniversary this week. But this celebration would not be possible without the efforts of its founder, Juliette Gordon Low, who fought to make the organization what it is today. Biographer and women's historian Stacy A. Cordery has made a mission out of understanding Low. In Cordery's new book, Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts, she explores the factors that drove Low to create what is now considered the single most important organization for girls and women in U.S. history. According to Cordery, there is so much more to this Georgia debutante than was ever revealed in the previous accounts of her life. JB: What made you want to write a biography about Juliette Gordon Low? SC: Nobody knows about her. I'm the first historian ever to write about her. So on one level, it's a mission of mine to get this woman into the history books. The only other biography for adults published about Juliette Low was Lady from Savannah. It was written over half a century ago, by her niece and essentially a friend of the family. That's the one that most Girl Scouts know, because the Girl Scouts of the USA have kept that book in publication. It's a very sort of "moonlight and magnolia" take on her. That story, in a nutshell, is about a Georgia debutante who married a fabulously wealthy Englishman, who then treated her badly and left her widowed soon after. Then, heartbroken from that experience, she wandered for her "time in the desert" trying to figure out what to do with her life. Then she met William Baden-Powell, fell in love with Baden-Powell, was transfixed by his program for Boy Scouts, and then Girl Guides, and decided she would dedicate her life to the Girl Scouts. So, that book presents the notion of a quirky, idiosyncratic, highly likable person who just kind of didn't know what to do, fell in love with Baden-Powell, and poof! Had a life's goal. JB: But that isn't what you've found? SC: What I have is a vastly different interpretation of Juliette Low than Lady from Savannah. So, even though I'm looking at what is fundamentally the same evidence, I think my book will make some Girl Scouts go "Really? That's not at all the way I thought about her!" JB: How do you think Low is different from that "moonlight and magnolia" perception of her? SC: I guess one thing that surprised me was how past interpretations of Juliette Low made her sound as though she were completely centered around men, and only acting because of men in her life. What I saw was a woman with a rich and vibrant circle of friends who, in fact, was a social entrepreneur, and a visionary leader of scouts. The Girl Scouts were like a one-woman show in the early days. It was her idea, she laid it out, she did everything from writing the manual to funding the organization, and that to me is not somebody who is, you know, brainless and unable to function without a man. JB: So how did Low come to found the Girl Scouts program in the U.S.? SC: Baden-Powell had begun Boy Scouting, and the response of girls to Boy Scouting was tremendous, and unexpected to Baden-Powell. At rallies and at other gatherings of Boy Scouts these girls would show up, and pretty soon he noticed that there weren't just girls—there were girls in uniforms that looked just like their brothers'. And in this era, where there was a big separation between what a girl should do and what a boy should do, Baden-Powell was really, you know, flummoxed. He pushed all of the girls off onto his sister, Agnes, because she was the unmarried spinster sister, and essentially he said, "Agnes, take these girls off my hands."
This was about the time Daisy entered his life, and she loved his idea, and started her own troop in Scotland, for poor village girls. Then she went to London, where she had a residence, and she started two Girl Guides troops there: one for poor girls and one for wealthier girls. And this was her background before she came to Savannah in 1912, and started her first Girl Guides troop in Savannah. So, the idea of Boy Scouting was Baden-Powell's. The early Girl Guides, Baden-Powell's. But Juliette Low took it and ran with it. As [Girl Scouts] evolved, it became much more her organization, much more about her goals, and there were parts of the program that Baden-Powell was not comfortable with because they were a little too far from the traditional understanding of the appropriate sphere for girls and women. JB: Like what? Can you think of an example? SC: He hated the name "Girl Scouts," and fought her for years about calling them Girl Scouts. "They should be Girl Guides," he said. "Guides exist to sort of back up the leaders, and girls should back up the Boy Scouts and they shouldn't be scouts themselves." And Juliette Low said, "Hmm, I don't think so. Here in America, my girls want to be scouts, and I think 'scout' is important. It harkens back to the settlement of the frontier in this country, and all kinds of good stuff, and we're going to call them scouts." You know, Baden-Powell and Low were friends, but she was never afraid to stand up to him, to say "No, we're doing it this way," or "No, I'm doing this." She admired Baden-Powell, so she stuck closely to his program and she copied his manual, but there was a lot of leeway for leaders to do things their own way, and Juliette Low always did things her own way. Among Low's very, very first ever badges that she she included in her manual were some pretty radical activities for girls at the time. Like, 'Cyclist' at a time when girls weren't supposed to be cycling. She had a badge for 'Electrician' and girls learning about batteries and fusing, which was a little unusual. She had a badge called 'Flyer', where you had to know about air currents and weather, and you had to be able to fly an airplane for 25 yards, and this made Baden-Powell raise an eyebrow. So, Low pushed at him in these ways. She did some different things for these girls that no one had thought about doing, and she found that her notions transformed their lives for the better. JB: She sounds really progressive for a woman of that time period. SC: This is something else that surprised me: Low is technically a woman of the Progressive Era, you know, she was of the generation of all these reformers in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, like Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, and the settlement house workers. Because I'm a women's historian, because I'm a Progressive Era historian, I come at this and go, "Oh, these people must all know each other." But Juliette Low is totally separate from that huge women's reform network. It's fascinating to me to see that Juliette Low created the single most important organization for girls and women in U.S. history. Period. Bar none. And yet she was not a member of this huge circle of female reformers in the Progressive Era. That was a surprise. JB: Girl Scouts is the most important organization for girls in U.S. history? What makes you say that? SC: No organization had more girls and women involved. There's nothing that even comes close. Campfire Girls were bigger than Girl Scouts was when they started, but Girl Scouting just grew and grew, and then Girl Scouting surpassed them in numbers. According to the Girl Scouts' records, 50 million women in this country were Girl Scouts at one time. 50 million. That's 3.2 million girls and women who are active Girl Scouts today. And when you start to look at the people who are alumnae of girl scouting, they're in every field. I mean, everybody from Gloria Steinem to Taylor Swift. When you really look at the types of leadership skills that Girl Scouting gives to young women, they don't get that anywhere else. Not in, at least these days, not an all-girls environment where you can be a leader on your local level, on a regional level, a national level, and the international level, because Girl Scouting is part of an international Girl Scouting and Girl Guiding movement, too. So, I really don't think there is any other organization for girls or women that comes close to having the enormous impact on society that Girl Scouts had. JB: Girl Scouts has an international component? SC: Yes! And Juliette Low at the end of her life was totally committed to international Girl Scouting and Girl Guiding. That was her focus when she stepped down as president of Girl Scouts in 1920, her whole passion was international Girl Scouting and Girl Guiding, because she really believed that the only way we could avoid another war was if we all knew more about each other. And of course, she just lived through World War I, and it was devastating. Devastating. Low really believed that the more we knew about other cultures, other nations, the less we would fight. I guess I thought she founded the Girl Scouts in 1912, and that's what she did until she died in 1927. And she did, but I don't think I understood that there was an international component to it that was so compelling for her. And that she sees that early. Most people were not as convinced about the international aspect of Girl Scouting as Juliette Low was early on. Baden-Powell was, he was convinced. And I think this was one of the things that made them work together so well on the larger issues of scouting. They both saw that if you could raise children without prejudice, raise children without racism, raise children without jingoism, then I think they thought we can create the possibility of a better life ahead. JB: It seems amazing that Low could accomplish as much as she did in an era when women were struggling to have their voices heard at all. SC: Yes, but Juliette Low's life had failed. Right? By the definition of the ideal woman of her era, she had failed. In fact, she had failed at both of the important things that a woman is supposed to do, that is: be a wife and be a mother. Because she and her husband were childless, and she and her husband had filed for divorce. This is the thing about Juliette Low. We think, "Oh, what a great woman!" And she was admirable in many respects, but her self-perception was that she was a failure. So when Juliette Low learned about Baden Powell's program, and when she began to make it more her own, what she knew in the back of her head was, "You know, sometimes life does not go the way you planned, and so the best thing I could do for these girls is to prepare them for an unpredictable future. JB: Do you think Girl Scouts still has that mission today? Do you still think the organization is as progressive? SC: Science, technology, engineering and math...that is a huge focus right now. And there's also a huge emphasis on the cookie sales providing entrepreneurial experience, accounting experience, business experience, and not just, "OK, we'll sell these cookies that we made with our mom's supervision so we can keep our troop going." So, I think in some ways, Girl Scouts today are very consistent with Juliette Low's message of preparing girls for the future. And of course, every time you're looking toward the future, you're looking toward something radical, because it's not the present, it's not something we're comfortable with. So, trying to increase girls' interest in engineering, mathematics, computers and so forth, is in its way just as radical as what Juliette Low was doing with her electrician badge, and her aeronautics badge, and her camping skills.