Juliette Gordon Low Biography

Philanthropist(1860–1927)
Juliette Gordon Low is the founder of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America.

Synopsis

Born in Savannah, Georgia, Juliette Gordon Low, or "Daisy" as she was fondly called, spent her early life in the South as a member of an socially and financially elite family. After the death of her millionaire husband, Low met William Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, which inspired her to create the Girl Scouts of the United States of America.

Early Life

Juliette Magill Kinzie Gordon was born on October 31, 1860, in Savannah, Georgia, to father William Washington Gordon and mother Eleanor Lytle Kinzie. The second of six children born to the Gordons, Juliette was named for her maternal grandmother, but was quickly dubbed "Daisy," a common nickname at the time. Daisy's parents described their second child as "a beautiful baby" with "a sweet disposition."

Entering infancy shortly before the Civil War, Daisy's childhood was complicated by the war efforts and her parents' conflicting views on slavery. Her father, a Georgia-born Southern slave owner, believed in the secession of the South from the Union, while her Northern-born mother, whose family had helped found the city of Chicago, believed in abolition. While Daisy's father was joining the war efforts on behalf of the South, her maternal relatives were enlisting in the Northern militias. Daisy's mother struggled with the conflicting feelings of having loved ones on both sides of the war, and often faced wrath from angry neighbors, who didn't understand the Gordon family's divided feelings.

As the war dragged on, Daisy's mother grew increasingly despondent about her husband's absence, and her ability to provide for the family. By the time Daisy was 4, the South had lost the war, and the little girl—malnourished and sickly—still had yet to truly see her father for more than a few days at a time. Her mother and sisters, under the protection of General William Tecumseh Sherman, moved to Illinois to stay with Daisy's maternal grandparents.

At her grandparents' home in Illinois, Daisy was exposed to an entirely different way of life. Her grandfather, a member of the Chicago elite, helped found the Chicago Board of Trade, the Chicago Athenaeum, and the city's public schools. He was also a savvy investor, who earned his wealth through the railroads, copper mines and his presidency of the Second State Bank in Chicago.

As a result of her maternal grandparents' influence in the community, Daisy encountered a variety of new people, including many Native Americans, who sought business and investment advice from her grandfather. Her interactions with Native Americans gave her an early appreciation of Native American culture, which she would idealize for the rest of her life.

By 1865, the family had reunited in Savannah and, thanks to her mother's efforts to recoup their financial losses in the South, Daisy's father was able to revitalize Belmont cotton plantation.

Adulthood and Marriage

As Daisy grew, her empathy for others, and her unconventional outlook on life became more and more apparent. Her siblings often commented on her inability to keep track of time, her frequent "experiments" that went awry, and acts of kindness that resulted in good-natured disasters. Her antics earned her the new nickname "Crazy Daisy," giving her a reputation for eccentricity that would stick with her throughout her adulthood.

Her adventurous and eccentric nature resulted in a restlessness of spirit when she was entered into a series of boarding schools, including the Virginia Female Institute, Edgehill School, Miss Emmett's School, and Mesdemoiselles Charbonniers. While she was taught the typical social graces of a highborn lady in school—excelling in drawing, piano and speech—she yearned instead to explore, hike, play tennis and ride horses—all activities discouraged by her restrictive finishing schools. Defiant in nature, Daisy was frequently caught breaking the rules.

By the age of 19, Daisy was torn between being a dutiful daughter and pursuing her dreams of being an independent woman. After a scuffle with her mother over finances, Daisy was able to convince the family that she should move to New York to study painting—one of the few pastimes considered appropriate for women of her time period to pursue. Daisy believed she might be able to turn her painting into a means of financial support and self-sufficiency.

Yet, Daisy was also expected to marry, which she did at the age of 26. Her union to wealthy cotton merchant William Mackay Low, who she considered her one true love, took place on December 21, 1886. During their ceremony, a grain of rice, thrown by a well-wisher at her wedding, became lodged in Daisy's ear. The pain of the impacted rice became so great that the couple was forced to return home to have it removed. As a result, Low's hearing was permanently damaged, and resulted in frequent ear infections and eventual deafness in both ears.

Divorce

Because of her husband's wealth, the Lows traveled often and socialized with the educated and monied. They made their home in London, purchasing the Wellesbourne House in Warwickshire, and spent autumns hunting in Scotland, and winters seeing family in the United States. But William, who had limitless funds and no restrictions, began spending more and more time apart from his wife, gambling, partying, hunting, and splurging on extravagant toys. Daisy was also gone on frequent trips, searching for cures for her hearing loss.

All was not well with Daisy and her husband, who remained childless—most likely due to Daisy's struggles with ovarian abscesses. By September 1901, it became clear to Daisy that William had taken on a mistress, a Miss Anna Bateman. As a result, William requested a divorce—at the time a shocking decree—but Daisy had to prove desertion, adultery and cruelty, all of which would require besmirching her name as well as those of her husband and Bateman. During this time, William also began drinking heavily and his social circle, worried about his mental and physical stability, all but deserted him. Daisy's friends and family rose to support her, hosting her at their houses so she would have socially acceptable reasons to be away from home.

Before the divorce proceedings could be finalized, however, William died of a seizure during a trip with his mistress. In an ultimate blow, Daisy discovered shortly after William's death that her husband had amended his will, leaving the bulk of his fortune to Bateman. Daisy was forced to contest the will, and eventually negotiated a settlement that provided her with an annual income and the Savannah Lafayette Ward estate. Bateman still received a sizeable portion of William's fortune in the legal battle, however.

Girl Scouts

After the loss of her husband and much of her financial stability, Low began traveling the world, sailing to France, Italy, Egypt and India. But she continued to yearn for a sense of purpose. This came to her in 1911, when she had a chance meeting with British general Robert Baden-Powell, a war hero and founder of the Boy Scouts. Originally determined not to like Powell (she believed he had received unduly large credit for the success of the Second Boer War and the siege of Mafeking), Low was instead instantly charmed by his manner.

Baden-Powell had founded the Boy Scouts with the intentions of training young boys for defense and preparedness in case of military invasion. Baden-Powell emphasized that the training should be fun, an idea that Daisy deeply appreciated.

The two shared a love of art and travel, and both shared common family backgrounds. They became instant friends, and started sharing ideas for the formation of a scouting troop for girls.

The early troops were known as Girl Guides, and were originally led by Baden-Powell's 51-year-old sister, Agnes. These were girls who had shown such an interest in Boy Scouting that they appeared in their brother's troops, dressed in piecemeal Boy Scout uniforms, eager to learn the same skills the boys were learning. Agnes was overwhelmed by the increasing number of girls showing an interest in becoming a Girl Guide, and both the Baden-Powells and Low agreed that these girls should have their own groups—mostly to appease apprehensions that the girls would feminize the boy's troops, or that the boy's groups would create masculine girls.

Low started several troops in Scotland and London, for girls of varying income brackets. The effect on the girls' self-esteem was so striking that Low decided she had to take the program to the United States, starting with her hometown of Savannah, Georgia. On March 12, 1912, Juliette Low registered the first troop of American Girl guides. The first of the 18 girls to register was Margaret "Daisy Doots" Gordon, her niece and namesake. Renamed the Girl Scouts in 1913, Low used her own money, and the resources of friends and family, to push the organization to new heights.

Final Years and Legacy

After years of ill health, Daisy discovered she had breast cancer 1923. She kept the diagnosis a secret, instead continuing her work with Girl Scouting, and her final mission to use the Girl Scouts as international ambassadors for peace. Low died from the final stages of cancer in January 17, 1927. She was buried in her Girl Sc out uniform in Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. Her friends honored her efforts by establishing the Juliette Low World Friendship Fund. The organization finances international projects for Girl Scouts and Girl Guides.

Since her death, scouting has grown to 2.7 million members, and is widely considered the largest educational organization for girls in the world.

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